June 9, 2013. Emma Carey still finds it strange just how normal she felt that day. She’d always assumed there would be a feeling or a sensation, something in the mind or gut that would ping before a life-altering event.
But as she climbed aboard the skydiving helicopter in the Swiss alps, five days into her European backpacking holiday, the buzz in her stomach was familiar – excitement.
“I’d been looking forward to it for so long, I’m such an adrenaline junkie,” the 25-year-old Sydney woman told Mamamia. “And then we jumped out, and it was just the most incredible feeling ever.”
The free-fall from 14,000ft lasted seconds, maybe less than a minute, before the instructor released their parachute. They slowed a little, but even as a novice Emma could tell it was not enough – the tangled parachute hadn’t opened fully.
By then the instructor had stopped talking to her, and Emma’s concerned questions hung in the air as they rushed closer and closer toward the ground.
“It’s so weird, because it would have happened really fast, but it was almost like time wasn’t real in that situation. I had so much time to think about everything,” she said. “I remember feeling absolutely certain that we were about to die. The ground was coming so fast. You know, no one is going to survive something like that.”
Emma landed on her stomach, fully conscious. Her instructor, though alive, lay limp and heavy, still strapped to her back.
“I tried to roll him off me so I could go and get help. And that’s when I realised I couldn’t move my legs, I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t even wriggle my toes at all. And that was terrifying,” Emma said. “I was just so confused. I was doing the same movement I had been doing my whole life. For it all of a sudden to not work is just the most bizarre feeling.
“I knew nothing about spinal cord injuries and – even though I don’t feel this way now – at the time I thought, ‘If I’m in a wheelchair, no way do I want to live.’ I didn’t want to go through that. I wasn’t an emotionally strong person back then, so I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with that at all.”
Emma’s friend and travel companion, Jemma, landed safely shortly after with her instructor; “She said she could hear me screaming out to her, ‘I can’t move my legs! Help me!'”
Jemma recounted her thoughts in a post on Emma’s popular Instagram page: “Just tell her it’s just shock and that she’s got to stay calm. Wipe the blood off her face and tell her that she hasn’t actually lost any teeth. She’s crying. Jemma, hold it together. You have to. Her instructor’s not moving, but I can’t even look at him. Emma is all I can think about. Just keep stroking her hair and tell her it’ll be okay. It’ll all be okay. It has to be.”
Around 12,000 Australians live with spinal cord injury. Between 350-400 new cases are recorded each year, 80 per cent of which are the result of traumatic injury. As well as multiple broken bones, Emma sustained what’s known as an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning only a limited number of signals are able to pass between her body and brain. Her legs were paralysed, her bladder and bowel control affected.