Sunday, January 24, 2016

Virginia Beach-based SEAL who died in accident was unconscious, never opened parachute

Petty Officer 1st Class William Blake Marston died in a parachute training accident in Florida on January 10, 2015.

An elite Navy SEAL who died in a parachute training accident in Florida last year never opened his main chute and was unconscious shortly after exiting the plane, which an investigation concluded he shouldn’t have been on to begin with because of a discrepancy over whether he was up to date with a required certification.

Why Petty Officer 1st Class William Blake Marston blacked out remains a mystery that Navy investigators said they couldn’t solve. Marston’s parachute and equipment were in good working condition.

“The most important question is unknowable, despite diligent investigative efforts,” Rear Adm. Brian Losey, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, wrote in his endorsement of the investigation’s findings. “We cannot identify why SO1 Marston was unable to operate his main chute.”

The Virginian-Pilot obtained a copy of the investigation through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Navy officials interviewed skydiving and medical experts but couldn’t pinpoint what went wrong. A witness who viewed the parachute gear said it was clear Marston didn’t grab the chute handles.

The medical review was redacted from the report, but the force medical officer noted there was a lack of evidence and concurred “there is no medical conclusion available that explains why SO1 Marston lost his ability to maintain stability and deploy his main parachute.”

Marston lived in Virginia Beach and was a member of Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team 6, when he plunged to his death the morning of Jan. 10, 2015, in DeLand, about 18 miles southwest of Daytona Beach. He previously had made about 120 free-fall jumps during his six-year SEAL career and was considered an above-average skydiver by his colleagues.

The investigation says Marston was supposed to open his parachute about five seconds after exiting a small propeller plane flown at 5,000 feet by civilian contractors, with the jump focusing on improving canopy-control skills. But for some reason, that didn’t happen.

About 15 seconds into his jump, he became unconscious. In another 15 seconds, he hit the ground.

It wasn’t clear from the redacted documents how the Navy knew when Marston lost consciousness. The four skydivers who left the plane after him didn’t see his free fall. A security guard on the ground said he heard a loud noise and saw Marston unresponsive in the final seconds before he hit the ground.

Marston wore an automatically activated reserve parachute that opened at 750 feet. But investigators believe that chute’s canopy was fully open for only one to two seconds before impact.

Marston landed feet first, breaking his right leg, and was unconscious and barely breathing when emergency responders arrived.

“Stay with me, buddy! Stay with me!” shouted the security guard who saw Marston fall, according to audio from a 911 call. “I need evac now. ... He’s not conscious at all.”

Marston was quickly taken to a local hospital, where the former college baseball player and avid CrossFit athlete was pronounced dead shortly after arriving. He was 31.

Marston’s death drew significant media attention, especially in his hometown of Concord, N.H. Marston was a well-known local athlete who worked out with city firefighters when he was in town.

Gov. Maggie Hassan ordered flags flown at half staff on the day of his memorial ceremony. Remembered for his smile and loyalty, his obituary described him as “the kind of guy you’d want your children to be around.” He’s survived by his parents, three siblings and two nieces.

A copy of the investigation was released to Marston’s family. A public telephone listing for Marston’s parents rang unanswered Friday and his mother did not respond to a Facebook message.

“It did not surprise me that Blake joined the Navy SEALs because he was always an unselfish athlete and had his team’s best interest at heart,” Patrick Boen, Marston’s coach at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., said in a statement after his death. “He was a great leader and someone that we are very proud to have worn the Stonehill baseball uniform.”

Soon after enlisting in 2008, Marston was selected for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training. He graduated the following year and was assigned to a SEAL team in Virginia Beach, according to his Navy service record. Marston later deployed to Afghanistan and was awarded two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals for heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service in combat. He also was awarded an Army Commendation Medal.

The investigation says there were seven largely administrative errors in the lead-up to Marston’s death, although none were considered major factors. One, though, should have kept him from jumping that day.

Investigators said Marston didn’t have a current certification for a high-altitude precision parachute system, which is required before conducting a military free-fall parachute jump. Marston’s certification expired in March 2014, although he said in a command biography that its expiration date was February 2019.

Investigators said neither of the two local high-altitude precision parachute system chambers – at Joint Base Langley and Norfolk Naval Station – had any record of Marston attending classes after March 2014. Regardless, the investigation said the lapsed certification wasn’t a contributing factor because high-altitude physiology requirements for supplemental oxygen begin at 10,000 feet, twice the altitude of Marston’s jump. Marston also was using an altimeter issued by his command that wasn’t authorized for use by the Navy, although it was found to be working.

“I concur with the opinion that these areas were not the proximate cause of S01 Marston’s death. But, we missed an opportunity to intervene that fateful day by grounding our teammate until these discrepancies were satisfied,” Losey wrote.

Marston arrived in DeLand for training the evening of Jan. 7. But the weather didn’t allow for any jumps the next two days. A witness said Marston was in good spirits, smiling and joking and passing time by throwing around a football. The weather was clear the morning of Jan. 10, a Saturday, and Marston and nine other jumpers boarded the small plane about 8 a.m. About 10 minutes later, five jumpers began exiting the aircraft.

As the plane made a second pass over the drop zone about five minutes later, Marston was the first to leave the plane. His exit was described as “clean and stable.” Investigators later found that significant fluctuations in barometric pressure were recorded in Marston’s devices beginning about five seconds into his free fall.

“Approximately 5 seconds into his jump, either at the time or just seconds before he should have deployed his parachute, SO1 Marston likely experienced a physiological event that prevented him from manipulating at least his hands and arms,” the investigation says. “At this time, he lost stability and began an uncontrolled freefall descent.”

He hit the ground about 30 seconds after leaving the plane.

“This tragedy was not caused by culpable negligence or recklessness, nor was it the result of a failure to follow orders or adhere to policy/instruction,” the commander of Naval Special Warfare Development Group, whose name was redacted, wrote in his endorsement of the investigation’s findings.

“SO1 Marston was a loyal teammate and fierce warrior who understood the risks associated with his duties and accepted them, as we all do. His potential was unlimited and we will miss him.”

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