The trouble began when Shields, on only her 34th trip aloft, attempted a choreographed jump with three more experienced divers. At 4,000 feet, the four glided away from each other so they could open their chutes. So far so good. But when Shields tried releasing her main chute, the cords twisted around her arm. "I realized right away I had made a mistake," she says. "I looked up and saw a 'streamer,' a fully deployed, noninflated parachute." She promptly grabbed for her emergency backup but didn't yank the handle hard enough. The reserve chute became tangled as well. "It's called a double malfunction," she says. "At that point I had nothing left to pull."
She was at less than 1,000 feet and falling fast. "I could see the trees," she says. "The ground was spinning. I remember thinking, 'I'm going to die.' Then I thought, 'That can't happen. That's too foreign; it can't happen to me.' I had a good 20 seconds to know I was in trouble and three to five seconds to know I was in serious, serious trouble. It was enough time to know that I didn't want to do this."
From the air, Don Schwab and Doug Sayre saw their skydiving partner hit. Within minutes they were on the ground, terrified at what they would discover. (Last year 23 U.S. sky divers died in accidents.) What they found was Shields, in pain but fully conscious. She had landed, rear-end first, in a muddy patch of swamp. "She was saying, 'Get me out of this hole,' " says Sayre. "She's really tough."
Airlifted by helicopter to the MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Shields needed no surgery for her broken bones. But the pain, she says, was "extreme, horrendous, terrible, intense." Even so, she was out of the hospital in 12 days. "It is a miracle," says Dr. Robert J. White, director of neurosurgery at Metro-Health. "In ordinary circumstances we'd be attending this lovely woman's funeral. I have no idea how she survived."
Shields has no idea either: "I didn't see the hand of God reach out to grab me. It would be great if this answered some philosophical question, but I'm still left to wonder. Somehow, I ended up still here. I'm just the luckiest person you've ever seen."
And maybe the stubbornest too. Even though her doctors think she would be crazy, Shields, who is single, says she's thinking about skydiving again.
—MICHAEL NEILL; KEN MYERS in Ohio