Muriwai skydive death: Surfers’ heroic effort to save knocked-out skydiver 1km out to sea at night on jetski

It was almost dark as Steve Morpeth and Dylan Wallis desperately pumped away on the unconscious skydiver’s chest, awkwardly propped up on the jet ski seat a kilometre out to sea.

The parachute the woman was still attached to dragged in the ocean currents off Muriwai Beach and they had almost capsized several times as they drifted with the engine off.

“It took three or four goes to really get her centred on the seat, and we nearly tipped the jet ski a couple of times,” Morpeth told the Herald.

“Got her on and I said to Dylan, ‘just go straight to CPR bro, compressions, I’ll count you out’. He opened up her harness enough to get on to her chest and start giving her the repetitions, and then I counted him out 50. Then I did 50. We pumped a lot of water out doing the compressions.

“I was holding her head just low enough to get the water out, turning it to the side. I thought potentially we could have saved her.”

Barely 15 minutes earlier, Morpeth had been relaxing at the end of the day with his young son on the deck of his hilltop property “marvelling” at the nine parachuters drifting down to the West Auckland coastline.

It was about 7.30pm on Thursday, and Muriwai residents were gathering in the street to watch the picturesque descent from Skydive Auckland that happens only a couple of times a summer.

But it didn’t take Morpeth long to notice something was wrong, with one skydiver floating much too far out to sea to land on the shore.

“I just knew something wasn’t right because at the altitude she was, there was no way she would make it back to shore given how far off the coast she was,” he said.

“So I just observed for a little bit longer, thinking that’s strange. It wasn’t long after she started spiralling and I just knew she was unconscious or the ‘chute wasn’t working.”

A statement from Skydive Auckland tonight has revealed that a group of experienced skydivers were performing a nine-way formation when two of them collided during freefall.

“One of the parachutists was rendered unconscious, and their parachute was deployed by another participant from the jump,” Skydive Auckland said.

As soon as Morpeth saw the woman hit the water, he grabbed his keys and ran to his 4WD.

Rushing, he didn’t grab his life jackets: “That was the crazy thing. I didn’t have time to chuck them in. I’d put them away a couple of days ago.

“I hooked the jet ski up and shot down to Flat Rock and fortunately, Dylan from the surf school was down there and he was just packing up after a lesson,” Morpeth said.

“He has an emergency key to access the beach. So I knew he had that and I was just lucky he was there. Pulled over, told him to jump in.”

Wallis’ parents own and run the local Muriwai Surf School. Local surf lifesavers say 30-year-old Wallis has just about rescued more people from the treacherous surf than any official life-saving volunteer in Muriwai over the years.

“You don’t think, you just do it. There wasn’t much of a choice, he was like grab the key, jump in,” Wallis said.

“I realised sort of what we were going into halfway out,” Wallis said. “I was like, this could be quite heavy but it is what it is.”

Morpeth says they “punched through a few waves” on their way out there and began looking for the skydiving plane which had been circling.

“That’s how I also knew something was wrong because I saw the plane come in and do a bit of a swoop,” Morpeth said.

“It was getting pretty dark and the sun was setting in our face. The plane obviously saw us and swooped around. We looked up and signalled to them ‘give us a location’ and they just flew straight over us. Then did a loop.”

Morpeth says while they “gunned it out” to where the skydiver had landed he was “surprised how far out to sea she was”.

“We saw the chute, the canopy, sitting on the water, and I said to Dylan ‘you’re going to have to jump in bro’,” Morpeth said.

“When you’re that far out to sea it’s quite daunting getting in the open ocean. Especially with what we know lives out here. And good on Dylan, without thinking he just jumped in,” Morpeth said

“All we could see is the helmet, just floating on the surface. So jumped in, turned her over, got her head out, she was face down. Ripped the helmet off. Managed to get the ski close enough, grabbed her by the top of her harness, and just instructed Dylan to jump back on the ski. It was quite an effort, a lot of weight with all the gear, so we managed to get her on.”

For about 15 minutes Morpeth and Wallis took turns giving CPR to the woman alone on the water.

“I thought potentially we could have saved her. I was unaware at that stage obviously what had happened in the sky. We just thought the chute was potentially out of control, or she was unconscious. I was holding her pulse. There was no pulse. A bit of colour came back into her face. But I think the damage was already done with the collision in the sky.

“We just kept doing compressions to give her the best chance to ensure she could potentially make it. If there was a chance, I like to think Dylan and I gave her the chance,” Morpeth said.

Muriwai Beach’s head lifeguard, Glenn Gowthorpe, had also seen the woman fall into the surf and rushed up to his house to grab his gear and follow Morpeth and Wallis into the water on another jet ski.

“We assisted them with the patient for a while and at the same time we quickly cut away all the harness and parachute because it was full of water and really heavy,” Gowthorpe said.

The woman was brought back to the beach on the inflatable sled on the back of the jetski.

“We came in and it was pitch black. We got to the shore, it was hard to see,” Morpeth said.

“There’s a reef out there that we actually had to go [around] even on the way out just with the tide. It was hard to see but we got around that. On the way in it was one of our main concerns but we dodged it. Came in on the back of a couple of waves.”

Onshore were police, paramedics and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter. While paramedics continued to give CPR to the woman, she died at the scene. The death has been referred to the coroner.

Investigators from the Transport Accident Investigation Commission are also gathering further information about the incident.

The other skydiver involved in the collision, a man in his 20s, suffered injuries after landing on the beach and was airlifted to Auckland City Hospital in a moderate condition.

Morpeth, 37, has lived in Muriwai since 2014, and spent much of his childhood in Auckland travelling out to the West Coast to surf.

He says he didn’t sleep at all last night after discussions with police and paramedics until 1am.

He had to go straight to work in the morning to secure a shipment to Australia for his business, Griptec.

“It’s all been pretty full-on. Looking forward to a rest,” Morpeth said.

“It’s pretty surreal the whole situation. I was explaining it at work this morning and someone said that sounds like a movie. And it still feels like that.”

Reflecting today about their rescue efforts, Wallis said: “I don’t know, it’s not about me. You just do. You do the best you can. It’s not the ultimate outcome at all, but at least we can know we did the best we can.”

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