falls

A lot of luck: How teen survived parachuting accident 

Jan. 28, 2014 at 6:32 PM ET

Video: Mackenzie Wethington, who survived a traumatic skydiving accident in Oklahoma, is out of intensive care. Her parents spoke to TODAY about what her dad called a “traumatic” fall. She is in a full body brace with a shattered pelvis and a half-dozen broken bones. She is expected to make a full recovery.

When Texas teen Mackenzie Wethington survived a parachuting accident Saturday, her father Joe called the 16-year-old “a miracle.” Doctors who treat traumatic injuries aren’t disagreeing. 

“Considering the bone and soft tissue damage that would occur from a fall from this height, the fact that she is alive and seemingly doing well really is quite miraculous, ’ said Dr. Michael Anderson, a pediatric critical care specialist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

Wethington is one lucky teen. The trauma surgeon who first treated Mackenzie in the ER didn't expect her to survive. "I'm glad to be wrong about that," Dr. Jeffrey Bender of the University of Oklahoma Medical Center in Oklahoma City said Tuesday at a news conference. 

Currently, Wethington is awake and breathing on her own and is listed in fair condition. “We see worse injuries routinely from car and ATV accidents,” said trauma surgeon Dr. Jason Lees, who is part of the Oklahoma team treating Wethington. “There’s a reason we wear parachutes when we step out of a plane.”

Amazingly, Wethington, who suffered a lacerated liver and kidney, broken teeth and multiple fractures throughout her body, is expected to fully recover within about six to eight weeks, Bender said Tuesday. Her injuries are "consistent with someone hit by a car going 40-50 mph," although that doesn't mean she hit the ground at that speed, he said.

According to the World Health Organization, falls are the second leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury deaths worldwide. Each year an estimated 424,000 individuals die from falls globally. And it doesn’t have to be a 3,500-foot mishap. 

“A person can take a fall from a standing height and the neck can break, so this young girl is exceptionally fortunate in how the circumstances and force of the fall dissipated throughout her body,” said Dr. Ryan Goodwin, director of the Center for Pediatric and Adolescent Orthopedics at the Cleveland Clinic. “She is young, and in seeming good health, so she has that going for her.” But, he adds, she also had a lot of luck and physics on her side, too.

When an individual falls from a great height, survival often depends on a lot of luck, as well as air resistance, or drag. 

“You can think of a fall as a form of energy,” explained James Kakalios, the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the school of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. “Basically, if a person steps out of a plane you have no velocity. Gravity will start to pull you down and you accelerate.”

But as you gain speed, air resistance comes into play and acts as a kind of brake slowing you down and reducing the amount of kinetic energy, or in other words, the force in which your body slams into the ground, said Kakalios, author of the Physics of Superheroes.

He thinks the teen may have done some things accidentally to increase air drag, slowing her fall, and leading to a potentially softer, yet still serious, landing. 

“She’s creating a lot of turbulence as she falling, and therefore she’s maximizing the time it takes for her to hit the ground,” he said, citing that reducing the rate in which an object, or person, comes to a stop is critical for safety. “That’s why we have airbags,” Kakalios said, citing other instances of people surviving long falls such as I- 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in which 13 people were killed, but 145 survived the 115-foot fall and the case of man who survived after he fell 500 feet from a New York skyscraper. 

It’s noteworthy that people don’t usually survive these things, but some people do in the right set of circumstances,” he said. “Many people buy lottery tickets and don’t win, but there’s always someone who does win.”  


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