“Lord, forgive me for the days when I was not thankful.”      Gravestone in Louisville, Kentucky

Saturday, August 1, 2009 – Cypress, Texas: Usually Shirley Dygert avoided risk.When her son Will decided to go skydiving to celebrate his 30th birthday, she pleaded with him not to go. Two years later, when son Joe decided to celebrate his birthday the same way, he invited his 54-year-old mother to join him. After an animated discussion with her husband, who thought she was crazy, Shirley decided to give it a try.

At 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, Shirley found herself at the Skydive Houston jump zone in a baggy jump suit. She met Dave Hartsock, who was to jump tandem with her and was relieved that he had made 800 jumps. “Don’t worry,” he assured her, “You are more likely to die from a lightning strike than a skydiving accident. Everything will be ok.” Shirley thought, “What in the world am I doing here?”

Dave gave Shirley the final instructions: once out of the plane they would rotate three times so she could see the countryside; then at 5,000 feet he would pull the parachute rip cord and they would glide to earth at 20 miles per hour. Their jump would last three minutes.

After exiting the plane at 13,000 feet, they hit maximum velocity of 120 miles per hour in a few seconds. At 5,000 feet Dave pulled the parachute ripcord and heard a loud pop. His main chute was tangled and only half open. They began to spin out of control and their speed only slowed to about 100 miles per hour.

Dave had never released his main chute and deployed the reserve chute, but that was his only option. He reached up for the main chute handle, but it wasn’t there. The malfunction of the main chute had pulled the handle out of his reach. Dave struggled to grasp the handle as they fell to 3,000 feet.

Now Dave had no choice but to deploy the reserve chute with the main chute still attached. Unfortunately, the reserve became partially tangled in the main chute, but it did slow their speed to 60 miles per hour. Dave knew that the jump wasn’t going to end well, but he refused to give up.

Just seconds before impact, Dave did the unimaginable. He yelled to Shirley to lift her feet up and brace for a rough landing. At the same time, he lifted his feet and twisted around so that his body was beneath hers. Dave made himself a human shield to try to save Shirley’s life.

Dygert family members watched with increasing horror as the tragedy unfolded. They heard the sickening impact from almost a quarter mile away and assumed the worst. After hitting the hard Texas dirt, Shirley opened her eyes and saw blue sky. She was injured but did not know how badly. Beneath her, Dave was unconscious and not moving.

Shirley was rushed to a hospital in nearby Cypress, Texas, while Dave was life-flighted to Houston Memorial Hospital. Shirley was treated for multiple broken ribs, five broken vertebrae, a torn spleen and damaged liver and kidneys. She was in the hospital for three months, but miraculously she completely recovered.

Immediately upon leaving the hospital, Shirley visited Dave who was still in intensive care in Houston. When she learned he was paralyzed from the neck down, she cried, kissed him on the forehead and told him that she loved him. He responded, “Well, it isn’t so bad, you know. I’m just thankful to still be alive. I figured we were going to die.”

What compelled Dave to sacrifice himself to save Shirley? He said, “I’m don’t think of myself as a hero. I was her instructor. It was my responsibility to keep her safe. I was just doing my job.” Because Dave refused to give up and accept their inevitable fate, he saved their lives.

Saturday, August 1, 2009, was a life-changing day for Shirley Dygert and Dave Hartsock. Although it has been more than 13 years since that fateful August afternoon, they remain good friends and they never take a day for granted. Every day will always be Thanksgiving for them.