Heroic Skydiving Instructor Saves Life


Updated 5/17/10 8:25pm

Thank you for your generous response to this story. After our story aired last week, nearly $40,000 has been raised to help pay Dave Hartsock's medical bills.

Sorting junk mail day after day -- driving the same rural mail route week after week -- you can understand why Shirley Dygert of Teague, Texas, thought she could use a little exhilaration for a change.

For her 54th birthday, the grandmother of three decided to send herself airmail - by jumping out of a plane from 13,000 feet. CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman reports Dygert was strapped to her instructor in what's called a tandem jump.

In video taken before the jump, Dygert is seen with her instructor and soon to be hero: Dave Hartsock.

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There isn't any video of what happened next, just still photos. Their first parachute opened, but only partially -- and their reserve chute just got tangled-up with the first one.

"And I thought, huh, this is how I'm going to die," Dygert said. "I thought God please help us, God please help Dave and we just continued to spiral."

At 40 mph and 500 feet from the ground, Hartsock did the truly unimaginable. Just before crashing, he told Shirley to lift up her feet. He then pulled down the control toggles to rotate their position to put his body under hers to act as a cushion so that when they hit, he would take the brunt of the fall.

"I can't hardly believe it," Dygert said. "He broke my fall."

Hartsock didn't die, but his valor cost him dearly. He's now paralyzed with just a little movement in his right arm.

"People keep telling me that it was a heroic thing to do," Hartsock said. "In my opinion it was just the right thing to do. I mean, I was the one who was completely responsible for her safety. What other choices were there?"

"You hear heroes say that, don't you?" Dygert said. "It's just because that's the kind of person they are."

We were with them the first time they saw each other since the accident. Although she came to hospital to cheer him up, it turned out the other way around. Hartsock had her laughing, and even invited her skydiving again.

"We're accident-proof now, baby. I mean what are the odds of something like that happening twice like that?"

He's planning on it someday.

Hartsock has a long road ahead - although some feeling is already coming back. Plus, he's got his mom taking care of him and she's got his same spirit.

  • Steve Hartman
    Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.