Andy Wirth describes how music of Pearl Jam pulled him through near-fatal skydiving accident
January 14, 2014
Steamboat Springs — Former Steamboat Ski Area marketing executive Andy Wirth described this week the harrowing details of his Oct. 13 skydiving accident and just how close he came to bleeding to death after a rough landing in a vineyard outside Lodi, Calif.
"It's a thin gray area in skydiving" accidents, Wirth said Tuesday evening. "I happen to have been fortunate enough to have survived that gray area."
With windy conditions narrowing the margin for error that fateful afternoon, Wirth became disoriented regarding the location of his intended landing area soon after his chute opened. He missed his approach, landing in a vineyard where the steel posts and wires that supported the grapevines caused severe trauma to his right arm.
Wirth left Steamboat in summer 2010 after 24 years to accept a position as CEO and president of Squaw Valley USA and Alpine Meadows ski areas at Lake Tahoe, Calif. He is back at work at Squaw this week after spending 50 days in the hospital and enduring 21 surgeries on his right arm. He said his right hand is recovering quite well and he has resumed playing guitar, but his elbow is progressing more slowly.
The recounting of his brush with death is made more poignant by Wirth's description of how he focused on the lyrics to a song by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder titled "Just Breathe" while struggling to maintain his composure in the minutes after he was injured. Wirth had to summon the courage to use his left hand to staunch the bleeding from the artery under his mangled right arm. All the time, he was aware that he was within a few minutes of bleeding to death.
"You have to understand that at this moment my arm was shredded and I was bleeding profusely, but I decided to try and slow down the bleeding by painfully shoving my left hand into my right armpit in desperate hopes of survival," he wrote in a Facebook post Monday that took the form of a letter to Vedder.
Wirth wrote to the legendary rocker to express the effect Vedder’s music had on him and the hopes that they might meet some day. In the letter, he described how the peaceful "Just Breathe," which deals subtly with issues of mortality and the importance of having loved and been loved, helped him to remain calm and focused while the lyrics played a continuous loop in his head.
"When I landed in the vineyard, I looked at my arm and knew I was in a bad spot," Wirth said during an interview that took place while he was undergoing physical therapy Tuesday. "’It was torn up’ is the kindest way I could put it. I had a severe dislocation of my elbow, the tissue was torn off my arm and my brachial artery was bleeding at a very fast rate."
Wirth would rely on his earlier background as a backcountry ranger, participating in rescues of victims who had undergone traumatic injuries, as well as his service on the North Routt Fire Protection District ambulance crew to stay alive until help came. But he also had to gain control of his emotions, and "Just Breathe" came into play immediately after his rough return to Earth.
He first heard Vedder's song while the credits were rolling on a documentary film about his friend, Buck Brannaman, known far and wide as the horse whisperer. He learned to play the song on guitar, and it became a favorite of his wife of three years, Karen.
"For some reason, that song came to me immediately. Semiconsciously, I think because I realized that I would be alone for a while. The first couple lyrics brought really intense, distilled sadness followed by really intense happiness," Wirth said. "It was remarkable. I had a sense that I had come to peace with dying that afternoon."
From “Just Breathe”:
“Yes, I understand that every life must end, uh-huh
“As we sit alone, I know someday we must go, uh-huh”
He continued to sing the song audibly while images of Karen and his grown children came to mind. He estimates no more than 15 minutes passed before EMTs arrived. Before long, he was boarding a flight-for-life helicopter that would take him to the University of California, Davis trauma center.
"Karen was there in Lodi," Wirth said. "She was waiting to take her first tandem jump. She saw me before I got pushed into the helicopter and gave me a kiss."
One of the positive things that have come out of the mishap is that his relationship with his wife has deepened, Wirth said, and his determination to spend more time with his children in Colorado also has strengthened.
"Karen spent nights in the chair next to me in the intensive care unit and has done things for me that no one should have to do. And she still does things like slicing my steak, tucking in my shirt and tying my shoes," Wirth said. "She has been there each tough, challenging step of the way, and she's a remarkable wingman."
A passion for stepping out of airplanes
Wirth had been skydiving for several years since leaving Colorado for his new job in California, and on the day of his near-fatal mishap, he was on an outing with two professional skiers, JT Holmes and Timy Dutton.
Wirth explained in his Facebook post how he missed his approach to the landing zone: "Because of the changing winds that afternoon, the drop zone was quite small and narrow. When I pitched my canopy (in a turning motion), I was quite disoriented and it took me a while to spot the drop zone," Wirth wrote. "While I was trying to fly to my safe area setting up for my downwind leg, base and final (landing), it became apparent that with about 45 seconds or so left, I was not going to make it, and was boxed in by way of power lines with no safe place to land."
He was at about 400 feet when he realized his only option was a fast downwind approach into the vineyard.
Will he ever skydive again? Despite the sheer joy he experiences upon stepping out of an airplane, he said it's very unlikely.
"I love skydiving. I've done a lot of sports and never once come up with anything close to free-falling and that 10,000 to 12,000 feet until you (open the chute) is so fun. But one strong reason not to do it again is that I've put my wife and three kids and mom and dad through a great deal of pain and hurt. I would skydive again in two seconds, but I don't want to do something that would put them through this pain and hurt again."
Wirth’s letter to Eddie Vedder:
I am writing you, yes, as a fan, but more as someone who has recently gone though a very rough patch; a rough patch which with the help and guidance of your song, "Just Breathe" has me alive, with my right arm and miraculously (albeit very limited presently) playing guitar again. (For the sake of clarity, surviving, keeping my right arm and any use of my hand/arm where very real questions on the afternoon on Sunday, October 13.) I thought you might be interested to know that the lyrics to "Just Breathe" were the powerful narrative for this very intense hour and a half of my life and my survival.
I have been skydiving for a few years now, ever since moving to Lake Tahoe, California from the mountains of Colorado. On Sunday, October 13th, I was jumping with some good friends and experienced skydivers (and fairly famous in their own right), JT Holmes and Timy Dutton. On that day, we were jumping out of Lodi, California. Because of the changing winds that afternoon, the drop zone was quite small/narrow. We exited the pane and had so much fun, again. as usual, freefalling together. However, when I pitched my canopy, I was quite disoriented and it took me a while to spot the drop zone. While I was trying to fly to my safe area setting up for my downwind leg, base and final (landing), it became apparent that with about 45 seconds or so left, I was not going to make it, and was boxed in by way of power lines with no safe place to land. At about 400 feet above ground level, my only option was a downwind landing (landing fast 'n hot) in a vineyard with very narrow rows. For my skill level, I executed a good landing, but I collided with large metal stakes, wires and big cabernet vines.
For a bit of background, I work in the business world as a CEO of two great ski mountains. Squaw Valley and Alpine now, but prior to that, I was a backcountry ranger in Colorado, involved in many high angle rescues inclusive of substantial trauma. I later went on to serve my community as a volunteer ambulance/fireman in a small town in the mountains of Colorado.
Immediately after landing, I saw that my right arm was mangled and bleeding profusely. I quickly went into my emergency medical response mode and assessed the situation. I knew it would be a while before anyone would get to me, and my most dominant feeling was of being very much alone.
Last year, a good friend of mine, Buck Branneman had a documentary made about him (called "Buck"). He has been a friend for about 15 years and it was so great to see him and his story covered in this film. At the end of this film, during the credits played a very powerful tune from one of my favorite bands/songwriters of all time, Pearl Jam/Eddie Vedder. And the song was, of course, "Just Breathe".
My wife Karen and I got married in Vancouver, BC three years ago and have been deeply in love ever since we met. This song has a deep meaning and spirit for both of us. I learned how to play Just Breathe on the guitar and it's a favorite request of Karen's anytime I pick up the guitar.
While my medical training had kicked in, the words "Just Breathe" and the song came to me immediately, and I began to sing it from the very beginning, keeping myself calm. The first few lines were perfectly appropriate in that death was very much around me as I was bleeding out. At that moment, the lyrics of Just Breathe helped me reconcile the fact that every life must end.
You have to understand that at this moment my arm was shredded and I was bleeding profusely, but I decided to try and slow down the bleeding by painfully shoving my left hand into my right armpit in desperate hopes of survival. I had already bled out quite a bit through my brachial artery and didn't have but 3-4 minutes left. As I held my hand as a tourniquet I proceeded with the rest of the songs lyrics as I continued to wait for help. "Just Breathe" was providing me with spiritual direction as much as anything. The song brought to me burning images and vignettes of my wife and each of my three children; it instructed me on what to do and continued to help me find peace and reconcile with passing; importantly, however, it was inspiring me to press on with efforts to live…to make it.
As help came to me after 12 -15 minutes, in between guiding and directing them, I was still singing 'Just Breathe" to myself, audibly. The moments of my life and the vignettes were of my life were pointed to by the lyrics in your song, including my beautiful wife, my three children and what is generally a wonderful life. When I was loaded onto flight for life helicopter, I did not have very much blood, so little that the EMTs could not pull any vitals on me. However, I knew that I was now close to trauma care. Again, the lyrics and your incredible chord progressions kept looping through my mind.
Upon arrival at the trauma center at UC Davis in Sacramento, I had three separate teams of surgeons working on me (trauma, ortho and plastics). As I went under, I was at this point done with the looping the song through my head, because I had done everything I possibly could to stay alive and it was now up to the surgeons to save my life, save and save my arm so I could play the guitar again. The surgeons said that they would do all they could to save my arm. It was all in their hands. And now it was quite literally for me, the last lyric of "Just Breathe…."meet you on the other side".
Three surgeries (19 hours), nine days in ICU and I write this from my hospital bed with another week to go. I am on the path to recovery and hope to still play "Just Breathe" for my wife when all is done. It will be quite a while, in truth, but remains my primary objective. When friends ask how I am doing, I very sincerely reply, "just outstanding, as you see I've gone from coming to peace with my own death, to being able to keep my right arm and now the prospect of playing guitar is real. I a doing just outstanding!"
I have always found your lyrics to have so much meaning to them. I wanted you to know that in in this case, your tune and lyrics helped guide me and were the musical bed to this traumatic event in my life. "Just Breathe" was the narrative to my survival.
I hope to meet you one day, and thank you in person, because in many ways "yes I am a lucky man".