California

Lodi parachute center owner: Woman who died Thursday wasn’t the first to land on Highway 99

The owner of the Skydive Lodi Parachute Center, where a skydiver died after colliding with a tractor-trailer, defended the facility in an interview Friday, telling local TV stations the woman was an experienced parachutist who had jumped several times from the facility before.

The woman was identified Friday afternoon as Maria Robledo Vallejo, 28, a Colombian national, according to Deputy Sandra Mendez, a spokeswoman for the coroner’s division of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.

According to the California Highway Patrol, Robledo drifted onto Highway 99 midday Thursday and collided with the back of the truck before landing along the right shoulder of the freeway.

During an interview with several news outlets including CBS 13, Bill Dause, the owner of the skydiving facility in Acampo, said he did not know if it was Robledo’s first jump of the day since they don’t track that information. Parachutists are often warned of how close the roadway is to the site and most people decide not to jump if the winds are too heavy, he said.

“It is an issue and we do emphasize that there are freeways there. It’s so obvious most people realize it,” Dause said.

“In the 30-something years that we’ve been here, we’ve had three people, not counting this last individual, land on the freeway. Fortunately, other than bumps and bruises, none of them got hurt and none of them got hit by a car or a truck,” he said, noting the Lodi Airport had been there since 1921.

Dause said he understood that Robledo had made more than 150 jumps, including “20-some” jumps in the last two weeks at the facility. He said that winds kicked up around 2 p.m. on Thursday when Robledo reached the end of her jump. “Was it too windy? No, not for somebody with her experience level,” Dause said.

“The parachute was fine. There was nothing wrong with the parachute,” Dause said. “Her indiscretion was the factor that led to the incident.”

“We’ve jumped in winds much higher than that. For whatever reason, she went too far downwind,” he added.

The facility, however, has been dogged by at least 21 deaths since 1981, according to previous reporting by The Bee. Nearly a year ago, a woman died after her chute failed to deploy. In 2017, a 42-year-old man also died after his parachute failed to open.

In 2016, a 25-year-old instructor and his student were killed during a tandem jump at the facility. Dause said that he was kicked out of the United States Parachute Association even though he said he had nothing to do with that incident.

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“They kicked me out because I sold the ticket to the tandem fatality,” he told reporters.

Dause said Robledo’s death did trouble him and others at the parachute center. Asked if Thursday’s incident gives him pause he said, “Of course it does. You know, wake up. Everything hurts us, It hurts the sport.”

In addition to the CHP, a Federal Aviation Administration official confirmed Friday the agency is investigating the crash.

Nationwide, there have been at least 413 deaths from skydiving between 2000 and 2016, according to the United States Parachute Association. There were 21 deaths in 2016, the most recent year data is available on the organization’s website.

Nancy Koreen, a spokesperson for the parachute association, said most skydiver accidents are a result of jumper error because a procedure was performed incorrectly. The group, which is based in Fredericksburg, Va., collects data from various member drop zones around the country but the Lodi facility is not associated with the association, she said.

Koreen could not offer any possible explanation of why so many accidents occured at the Lodi center.

“Sometimes it’s just a coincidence,” Koreen said. “Some drop zones tend to get a lot of jumpers who are travelers and visiting from other places and just have high volume.”

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