Former Steamboat resident recovering after skydiving accident
Having done more than 4,000 jumps, skydiving has become a part of Zach Sabel’s daily life, but his jump on May 18 was a first for the 1995 Steamboat Springs High School graduate who now lives in DeLand, Florida.
“It could have been a whole lot worse,” Sabel said of the jump that ended with a hard landing at Skydive DeLand, a drop zone that is about a mile from his home. “I have a lot of friends that are in more terrible situations than I am. I got out of it pretty easy, that’s what happened. I used one of my nine lives.”
Sabel said he jumps at the drop zone in DeLand all the time, and on this day, he had decided to take a lunchtime jump with his girlfriend and a couple of her friends.
“We were just going to go do one skydive and then go grab lunch,” Sabel said. “The plan was to get one jump and then hang out for a little bit, and then everybody goes back to work.”
Sabel said he made the jump, his parachute opened and everything was going fine at the start, but he misjudged the landing.
Sabel explained that when in flight, skydivers are almost always at a downward angle. This keeps the parachute inflated, and ridged so that it reacts similar to the wing on a plane. But as the skydiver approaches their landing they must change the angle at just the right time to come parallel with the earth and create a soft landing. Sabel said he misjudged the landing and came in too fast.
“It was just kind of a normal day of skydiving. It was absolutely operator error on my behalf,” Sabel said. “That day I just kind of messed up my timing of changing my angle from going down to going forward.”
He compared his landing to skipping a rock off of water. He said he basically skipped off the earth, flying another 30 feet in a superman position, several inches off the ground before hitting hard and coming to a stop. He thinks there must have been something, or someone, looking out for him that day because he said he should have broken his neck.
Sabel said he absorbed the initial impact on his right side, mainly his leg and hip, then the parachute pulled him along just off the ground — head forward — breaking off a GoPro Max 360 that recorded the crash. By the time he came to a stop he had suffered several injuries that included breaking his L4 vertebrae in three places, snapping a rib on his right side and suffering a hematoma that left his right leg swollen from his knee to his buttock.
There are people on the ground to watch to make sure the jumpers land safely, and he said it only took minutes before people arrived and called an ambulance.
Sabel spent the next 15 nights in the hospital where doctors and nurses looked after his injuries as he began his road to recovery. Today he is out of the hospital and is going through rehabilitation as an outpatient.
However, Sabel is faced with a long list of restrictions. The maximum weight he can lift is eight pounds and he wears a brace that keeps him from twisting or turning the wrong way. Doctors have told him that a wrong move or a fall could leave him paralyzed.
Because of the impact with the ground, his spine and parts of his brain are still swollen, which is causing a lot of nerve pain in other parts of his body. It also causes some short-term memory issues.
However, doctors expect that when the swelling recedes he will see improvements in those areas. It will take three months for the bones to heal, and another nine before he fully recovers.
Sabel said he has so much to be thankful for and is lucky to have the support of many good friends and the skydiving community. One of those friends has set up a GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/f/zachary-r-sabel-road-to-recovery to help Sabel cover expenses and support him until he can get back to work.
Sabel has held a number of skydiving jobs over the years including working at a wind tunnel, an airplane-free skydiving facility in Denver called SkyVenture, and running Freefall University at the Chicagoland Skydiving Center. He left his most recent job in early May.
He is confident of making a full recovery and, once cleared by doctors, plans on returning to skydiving.
“I do something involved with skydiving all the time,” Sable said. “It’s my job, it’s my career, it’s my hobby and it’s my life. I don’t do much outside of that,” Sabel said. “Yes, there are inherent risks of skydiving, but I wouldn’t do it every day if I thought I was going to die or get hurt — this is my first injury in 4000 jumps.”
John F. Russell is the business reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach him, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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