VANCOUVER — It was an anniversary gift from her boyfriend — a gliding experience over B.C.’s Fraser Valley that he was videotaping, until he watched in horror as the young woman slipped from the pilot’s grip and plunged 300 metres to her death.
The hang glider’s pilot tried desperately to hold on to Lenami Godinez, said Jason Warner, a hang gliding safety expert who arrived at the top of Mount Woodside and spoke with the pilot just minutes after the accident on Saturday.
“He felt there was something wrong within seconds from launch,” Warner said in an interview Sunday.
“He tried to grab her, he tried to grab her harness, everything he could, wrapped his legs around her and she slipped down his legs and then fell.”
Warner, the safety director for the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada, also spoke with the her boyfriend who told him he organized the experience for Godinez as an anniversary gift.
“The worst thing possible has happened. Everybody is in shock, the (gliding) community is in shock,” Warner said.
He said the man was videotaping the experience, but stopped recording just before she fell.
RCMP Sgt. Mark Pelz said he spoke with several witnesses after the incident.
“The boyfriend was next to go. All you can say is ’Oh my God,”’ he said.
The 27-year-old woman, who had no experience in hang gliding, was riding beside the pilot.
Godinez was apparently an immigrant from Mexico and had been in Canada for several years.
Mount Woodside is a popular spot for gliders and considered one of the safest sites in the Fraser Valley to launch from for winds and for distances, said Warner.
He said this is the first time this type of accident has happened in Canada, although there have been similar accidents around the world.
Because the area below the jump-off point was heavily forested, Pelz said it took dozens of searchers about eight hours to find the woman’s body.
“The area of the search was massive,” he said.
Witnesses said the woman fell about 30 seconds after the launch.
The investigation is in the early stages, and RCMP couldn’t say if pilot error or equipment failure were to blame.
The fall appears to be nothing more than a horrible tragedy, but police will keep an open mind as they investigate what happened, Pelz said.
“We have the hang glider, we’ve got all of the hardware that goes with it, we’ll find an expert that will tell us what needs to happen if any of the equipment failed,” Pelz said.
The BC Coroners Service will also take part in the investigation.
Coroner Barb McClintock said it’s her understanding there are many fail-safe mechanisms on such gliders.
“Obviously we’ll be looking at things like what were the mechanisms in place, were they being done correctly, were there enough mechanisms, did we have some sort of horrible perfect storm when they could all go wrong at the same time,” she said.
Warner said his group will also be investigating.
“We’ll determine whether it was pilot error of equipment failure,” he said. “If it was pilot error, we’ll be re-examining his certification.”
While there are already many safety standards in place for hang gliding in Canada, Warner said they’re asking all pilots and instructors to double check equipment, especially if they’re doing a tandem ride.