The top safety expert for a national skydiving association said a "mini-tornado," known to jumpers as a dust devil, caused the Calverton accident Wednesday that killed a correction officer and injured his instructor during a tandem jump.
The mix of wind and dust churned into a funnel and made it impossible to control the parachute, said Rich Winstock, a national director of the United States Parachute Association, who chairs the organization's safety and training committee. Witnesses told Riverhead police Wednesday that the parachute had opened before the victims hit the ground.
Gary Messina, 25, a New York City correction officer who grew up in Medford, was killed, and his instructor Christopher Scott, 28, was critically injured in the 4:10 p.m. accident at Calverton-based Skydive Long Island.
"The instructor was rendered helpless to counter the mini-tornado. In fact, he did his very best to avoid or outrun the weather abnormality, trying to reach a safe and open landing area," Winstock said in an email.
He said he "interviewed most present during the incident" and is investigating on behalf of the organization, which was started on Long Island in 1946 under another name but is now based in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Earlier yesterday, Carl Messina of Medford, Gary Messina's father, said a wind gust collapsed his son's parachute.
FAA officials Thursday had no information about the accident's cause. The National Weather Service in Upton has said winds were in the 5- to 15-mph range at the time of the fatal jump.
At the Medford home where Messina grew up, friends and relatives consoled his parents.
Carl Messina choked back tears in the front yard of the Buffalo Avenue home as he spoke about his son's life and his death.
Gary Messina would have turned 26 Thursday and was doing what he had done every summer around his birthday for several years -- celebrating with a skydive, his father said.
"He was a man's man," said Messina of his son, "an inspiration to all who knew him."
Gary Messina started working as a correction officer at Rikers Island in 2012, according to the Department of Corrections.
Several who knew the officer sobbed as his father spoke. No one else wanted to talk, and the elder Messina soon said he was too distraught to continue. "I'm done," he said, before he and the others went into the house and shut the door.
Skydive Long Island, a business that caters to recreational skydivers, also operates a training school.
Ray Maynard, owner of Skydive Long Island, declined to comment Thursday. The facility, which operates from a hangar near Calverton Executive Airpark, was open for business.
Throughout the morning and into the warm and sunny afternoon, a plane carrying skydivers could be seen circling high above, before jumpers, most in tandem pairs of three and four, appeared. Their colorful parachutes billowed above them as they gently floated toward a large open field behind the Skydive Long Island hangar.
Customers Kaz Ryder and Lea Silverstein said they didn't find out about Wednesday's fatal jump until after they landed yesterday and were approached by reporters. Both said despite the accident, they still would have jumped had they known.
Scott, the instructor, remained in critical condition Thursday. His LinkedIn page said he has worked as an instructor at Skydive Long Island since March 2012. He was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital after the accident.
Wednesday night, close to 30 of Gary Messina's co-workers, some still in correction officer uniforms, gathered near where he was killed.
A day later, several of his 438 Facebook friends had replaced their profile pictures with a black law enforcement badge. A photo of Messina wearing his navy blue correction officer's uniform and hat was superimposed on the badge over a blue stripe and the salutation "Rest in Peace!! My Brother!!"
With Portia Crowe,
Zachary R. Dowdy,
and John Valenti