After Roar of Jet, Parachutes Appeared in Sky
The roar from the sky was the tip-off because, if there’s one sound people in El Cajon are not accustomed to hearing, it is the sound of jet engines.
Those standing outside in the path of the wayward F-14A fighter jet shortly after 10 a.m. Monday immediately looked up. What they saw was the aircraft turned upside down, its landing gear pointing toward the sky.
Although most eyes were fixed on the plane as it wobbled toward a collision with a hangar at Gillespie Field, something else also caught their attention: two bright orange objects falling from a few thousand feet above them.
“At first I thought they were weather balloons,” said John Wilkinson, a paramedic and firefighter at El Cajon Fire Station 8. As luck would have it, Wilkinson and fellow firefighters Terry McIntyre and Bruce Rogers--all of whom were on duty--were exercising at Wells Park, near Madison Avenue and 1st Street and about 3 miles from the airport.
“ ‘Hey,’ Terry said, ‘that plane is losing altitude,’ ” Wilkinson recalled his companion saying. “That’s when the weather balloons turned into pilots.”
The firefighters, who were at the green, well-manicured 19-acre park along with a fire engine, ran toward the southwest corner of the park, where one of the men in the plane, identified as Lt. (j.g.) Randy L. Furtado, 27, the radar intercept officer aboard the stricken jet, was about to hit.
When Furtado was about 1,000 feet above them, it was clear to Wilkinson and McIntyre that the Navy officer was unconscious. He wasn’t moving or attempting to adjust his parachute lines, they said.
The parachute hit electrical lines that go across the park’s southern boundary, but the airman cleared the lines, landing on his heels and then toppling backward.
“I got his helmet and mask off,” Wilkinson said, describing the task as very difficult. Furtado was unconscious. They ripped through his flight suit. His chest wasn’t moving, but he had a pulse. “He was obviously in respiratory arrest,” Wilkinson said.
Resuscitation Efforts Begun
The firefighters tried to resuscitate him. Nearby was a bystander with a knife. Working under Wilkinson’s instructions, the bystander cut away the flight harness and the radarman’s uniform, as the firefighters examined him for outward signs of injury.
Furtado was still in full gear, armed with a combat knife and flare gun. He was still attached to his aircraft seat and a life raft dangled from it, Rogers said.
“He was in really bad shape,” McIntyre said. There was blood coming out of the man’s nose and mouth. A few minutes had passed. By then police had arrived, and they cut the remaining lines holding the prone radarman to the parachute. The firefighters summoned a Life Flight helicopter, which landed about 20 minutes later on a nearby baseball field. Furtado never regained consciousness and he was unable to breathe on his own.
The firefighters are sure that Furtado--listed in critical condition with a broken neck at Sharp Memorial Hospital--wasn’t seriously injured during his fall or when he hit the ground, and that he was already unconscious.
Judging from the airman’s scarred helmet and thick pieces of plastic from the cockpit canopy found in the area, the firefighters surmised that Furtado was injured as he ejected, possibly as his head crashed through the canopy.
A block away, in the 1100 block of Main Street between Safari Drive and 1st Street, the second parachute, carrying the plane’s pilot, Lt. Jim Barnett, 36, hit the pavement moments after the first.
“When I heard the jet, I came running out of my office,” said Gene Dunne, 57, manager of Bert’s Office Trailers, 1143 Main St.--just yards from where the pilot came down. Dunne was standing on the curb in front of Bella Rosa Mobile Lodge at 1155 Main St., watching the jet descend when he saw a column of smoke rising in the northwest. He watched as a parachute--at the time he thought it was the only parachute--fall in the area of Wells Park.
“Then someone yelled, ‘Look out!’ ” he said. He looked up to see a parachute hitting the utility lines directly above him.
“The lines spilled the air out of his parachute,” Dunne said. “When that happened, he hit the ground like a ton of bricks . . . he was free-falling. It was a sickening sound, a loud thud, when he hit the ground.”
Pilot Landed on Feet
As Dunne watched from only a few feet away, the pilot landed on his feet, but then pitched forward and fell on his face and head, cutting his face and opening a gash on the top of his head that bled profusely.
Barnett was listed in fair condition at Mercy Hospital with cuts on the head and face, a broken arm and two broken heels.
The pilot wasn’t wearing a helmet, Dunne said.
Despite the fall, the pilot was conscious and reportedly told paramedics, “We lost our hydraulics.”
Within moments, El Cajon police arrived, cutting away Barnett’s flight harness and the parachute lines. He was taken by Life Flight to the hospital.
“He came down right in front of me,” said Dunne, still excited by the morning’s events and his involvement in them. “If he’d hit me, I’d have been in trouble.”