The Sky's Her Limit

Carol O'Connell Renews Her Faith In Skydiving

Skydivers have a saying: The most dangerous part of a jump is the plane ride. And two years ago in South Florida that bit of "bumper sticker wisdom" became a terrifying reality for Carol O'Connell.

48 Hours Correspondent Randall Pinkston reports.

O'Connell loves skydiving, but she knows the risks.

"You got to have a lot of faith and you got to have a lot of trust to skydive," she says. "The first time I went up, it waslike, 'Am I gonna die? Am I crazy to be doing this?' And then you do it and you don't die."

"So you're like, 'OK, I wanna do it again.' When you're picking up speed, it almost feels violent. Your mind's saying, 'I can't believe I'm doing this,'" she says.

It is a saying O'Connell must have uttered repeatedly during the plane crash that changed her life.

"I was gonna jump off at 3,500 [feet]," O'Connell recalls. "There were six others on board. It was just a normal jump. Everything about it was normal."

As the most inexperienced skydiver, she was set to jump first. Perched just outside the door, she waited for a signal from the "jump master." But the command to go never came. Instead, the plane began to tail spin in its rapid descent.

"Everything went very slow," OConnell remembers. "You're just, like, doing everything you can in slow motion with all the strength you have."

It was the moment of truth: jump clear or die. "So I jumped away from it and watched the plane crash," she says.

Everyone inside the plane, the pilot and five skydiver friends of OConnells, died on impact.

"When I see the crash in my head, I want them to come out," OConnell remembers. "I'm, like, still trying to pull them out. What's amazing is that, from that day forward, the experience of that, I'm different."

OConnell went back to work, but something inside her had shifted.

"When I saw the plane crash, it was like I experienced my death, because I was five seconds away from it," she says.

"What's different for me is that I really know it, and in my heart, I feel it differently," OConnell explains. "All of a sudden, you know, you really know, how precious life is."

OConnell, 45 and single, subsequently threw herself into life. But she discovered the one thing she was afraid of: "I didn't like airplanes," she says.

"I've never noticed as many airplanes in the sky since this crash," she says. "I wanted to skydive. I wanted to get out and push some air through my brain and get the cobwebs out."

But she couldn't. Unable to skydive, OConnell sought the help of a therapist.

Like a Vietnam vet, OConnell has suffered from posttraumatic stress syndrome, triggering moments that remind her of the tragedy, she says.

When 48 Hours questioned her closely about the crash, OConnell eventually asked that the camera be turned off.

But shis determined to continue her skydiving. "I do not want to be driven by fears," she says. "If I knew what was going to happen, I would never have gotten on that plane."

She cheated death once, and now OConnell wants to skydive again. She has a new $5,000 parachute, the best that money can buy. And she's got a new nickname: Shatterproof.

OConnell has got it all. But that doesn't make her any less nervous.

"I know everything's gonna be OK, but mistakes happen," she says. "That plane will never repeat itself. The pilot, the people and I will never have to relive that instant again in this lifetime. So it's over. It's done. It's in the past.

Explains O'Connell: "When you go out that door, there's this change of your awareness or something."

"It's that you're only in that moment - that moment only exists. When I jump, I live," she adds.