The pilot of a hang-glider from which a woman passenger fell to her death during a flight east of Vancouver Saturday has been charged with obstruction of justice, police say.
Witnesses said the hang-glider's pilot, Willam Jonathan Orders, tried desperately to hold on to Lenami Dafne Godinez as the 27-year-old woman slipped from his grip and plunged 300 metres to her death about 30 seconds after the launch of the tandem flight.
But police said Monday that Orders, 50, of Burnaby, B.C., was arrested after the incident and has now been formally charged.
The charge is related to the allegation that Orders withheld potential key evidence which could help determine whether he played a role in any wrongdoing in the incident, said RCMP Cpl. Tammy Hollingsworth.
Jason Warner, the safety director for the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada, said he spoke with the pilot just minutes after the accident on Saturday afternoon.
"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."
This is the first time this type of accident has happened in Canada, although there have been similar accidents around the world, said Warner.
The pair took off from Mount Woodside, a popular gliding spot and considered one of the safest launch sites in the Fraser Valley for winds and for distances, said Warner.
Godinez's boyfriend had bought her the flight as an anniversary gift and was videotaping her takeoff, but stopped recording just before she fell to her death, said Warner.
"The worst thing possible has happened. Everybody is in shock, the [gliding] community is in shock," Warner said.
Godinez was apparently an immigrant from Mexico and had been in Canada for several years. She had no experience in hang-gliding and was riding beside the pilot before she fell.
Harness not attached to glider?
Orders, a hang-glider with 16 years experience, became a certified tandem instructor three years ago, CBC News has learned.
Paraglider Nicole McLearn, who saw Godinez take off from Mount Woodside and fall to her death, said she had her harness on the whole time, but unlike the pilot, it didn't appear to be attached to the glider.
"He was horizontal but she was now hanging vertically, and it looked like in essence she had him in a bear hug around the chest area," McLearn said.
"I could see her starting to slip down his body ... past the waist, down the legs. Finally she got to the feet and tried to hang on and obviously couldn't hang on for that much longer and let go, tearing off the tandem pilots shoes in the process."
Normally, the harness would be clipped onto the hang-glider's frame, using a carabiner and double straps for safety, according to hang-glider Chris Uganecz.
Before each flight, Uganecz said pilots should check every bolt and strap on the glider, then clip themselves in to test the gear by hanging in the air while the glider is on the ground.
But Uganecz said accidents can happen when a step is missed.
"A possibility — and it's happened before some guys have done this hang-gliding — is to put a harness on, and then come around to the glider and pick it up and launch, without doing what we call the hang check."
RCMP and coroner investigate
RCMP said early Monday that the investigation was still in the early stages.
"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," said Sgt. Mark Pelz said.
Because the area below the jump-off point was heavily forested, Pelz said it took dozens of searchers eight hours to find the woman's body.
"The area of the search was massive," he said.
Pelz said he spoke with several witnesses after the incident, including the victim's boyfriend.
"The boyfriend was next to go. All you can say is, 'Oh my God,'" said Pelz.
The B.C. Coroners Service and WorkSafeBC 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 the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada will also be investigating.
"We'll determine whether it was pilot error or 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.
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