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Skydivers Respond To KPIX Report Of Bay Area Jump Gone Awry

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- A Bay Area man who almost died in a skydiving accident has become a pariah, shunned by fellow skydivers worldwide following a KPIX 5 report.

It happened last summer, on Gerardo Flores' 30th jump at Skydive Monterey Bay. Seconds after leaving the plane his parachute deployed prematurely and -- according to a federal investigation -- improperly.

"It actually sent the parachute into a big spin, it's like a funnel and you start dropping," said Flores.

The tailspin lasted 20 minutes, during which Flores passed out. His GoPro video camera captured the entire fall.

Minutes after our story aired, irate emails started pouring in, all blaming Flores, specifically because he jumped with a camera. On Flores' YouTube site, where he posts all his jumps, the comments were vicious:

"Enjoy your injuries you s*head, you deserve them," said one. "I am very disappointed that you are still alive," said another. And "You were rewarded with pain, stay out of my sky," said a third.

"It could have been an e-mail campaign to smear Mr. Flores," said his attorney David Kleczek. Kleczek believes the skydiving community is demonizing Flores to distract from the potential responsibility of the school.

"We believe there are many violations by Skydive Monterey Bay. The equipment was in a serious state of disrepair" Kleczek told KPIX 5.

An FAA report found a critical velcro closing flap on the parachute container was "completely worn". And the parachute's rigging had knots, prompting the inspector to note "these lines should have been replaced."

"It's a report, its subjective," said Skydive Monterey Bay's drop zone manager Jackie Behrick.
After avoiding our interview request for weeks, Behrick made herself available.

"Any knots in the rigging is an event of how he deployed. It's nothing that we had done prior to his jump, absolutely not," she said.

As for the worn out velcro: "The way he landed with his container hitting the ground could wear out any number of things," she said. She's convinced the main factor was Flores' use of a camera.

In a recent interview Flores showed us how he placed that camera inside the glove of his left hand. "I still have my fingers, my hands. It was never a problem," he said.

He says several employees at Skydive Monterey Bay knew he had it, something Behrick denies.

"I had no idea he had a camera. We would never allow him to jump with a camera at his skill level," she said.

Behrick says only very experienced skydivers use "hand cams", and they're set up very differently. Flores' set-up -- inside the palm of his left hand -- was not at all proper. "Not one person in skydiving would arrange something like this," she said.

The director of safety and training for the U.S. Parachute Association agrees. "The USPA has guidelines that people shouldn't jump with a camera with less than 200 jumps of experience," said Jim Crouch.

He admits it's a guideline, not a regulation. But he says: "Throughout the years this system of guidelines has contributed to a tenfold reduction in fatalities in skydiving in the U.S."

But USPA guidelines also suggest at least 100 jumps before skydiving above 15,000 feet.

Yet Skydive Monterey Bay promotes the world's highest jumps at 18-thousand feet, and Behrick confirms Flores often jumped from that height. Flores' attorney says that should be taken into consideration just as much as the camera. "That certainly was a cause we should look into as to why Mr. Flores actually lost consciousness," he said.

So what ultimately caused Flores' chute to deploy prematurely? A final FAA report is still pending. However the FAA only looks at the equipment. The agency is not mandated to oversee the actual skydive event.

One thing we do know: The USPA guidelines consider a premature deployment to be a serious incident, especially for a novice.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed)

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