Raquel Rizkalla will be released from UF Health in the next few days after a skydiving accident left her hospitalized for a month and unable to walk.
The 19-year-old was on her tenth jump with Skydive Palatka when a botched landing slammed her into a metal fence, resulting in broken ribs, a shattered pelvis and a broken femur. She was on her last jump before earning her accelerated freefall certification.
The University of Florida sophomore was airlifted to the hospital via helicopter. She hopes to walk again in the months following her release, and plans on tossing herself from airplanes again not long after that.
“I still love it,” she said. “The first time I jumped and landed, I thought ‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.’”
Rizkalla’s jump began like normal — 13,500 feet above the ground, she and her skydive instructor willingly stepped out the door of a single-engine Cessna airplane.
She shot toward the ground. Specks and squares grew into trees and fields as the Earth rushed up to meet her.
She pulled her chute cord. The canvas blossomed above her, reducing her breakneck speed to a tranquil drift as she floated to the ground.
But trouble began at 1,000 feet, when Rizkalla realized she wasn’t in the right position to follow the correct landing pattern.
She was on a collision course with a metal chain-link fence. Rizkalla had to decide: Hit the fence at a reduced speed or make a high-speed last-minute turn that would send her hurdling toward the hard ground below.
She chose the fence, striking one of the metal poles that separated and supported the chain links.
“I just kind of raised my knees to my chest and took it,” she said.
Her choice likely saved her from more severe injuries — or death — but it landed her weeks in the hospital and took her ability to walk for the next couple of months.
Rizkalla’s accident was what Art Shaffer, drop-zone owner of Skydive Palatka, called a “very seldom, rare occurrence.”
There’s plenty of space for skydivers to land at his jump zone, he said. The way Rizkalla flew her canopy took much of that space out of the equation.
“It’s kind of like painting yourself in a corner,” he said. “There’s no way to get out without stepping in wet paint.”
Nancy Koreen, the United States Parachuting Association’s director of sport promotion, said there were 24 fatalities out of 3.2 million jumps last year. She said the current skydiving fatality rate is “maybe .0007 percent.”
“It’s usually jumper error,” Koreen said. “Most commonly it’s more advanced skydivers trying advanced maneuvers and not executing them properly.”
As her wounds slowly heal, Rizkalla said she feels lucky that her injuries weren’t as severe as they could have been
“I landed on the ground, on my side,” she said. “I wiggled my feet and my toes and thought, ‘I’m not paralyzed; I’m happy.’”
The accident did nothing to diminish her love of skydiving, she said. Instead, it increased her respect for the sport.
“I still want people to get into it,” she said. “Chances are, what happened to me isn’t going to happen to them.”