RIVERHEAD - A young father died in a skydiving accident at Skydive Long Island Wednesday afternoon in Calverton.
Police have identified the victim as Gary Messina, a New York City corrections officer from Medford. Police say Messina died on impact after an apparent parachute failure during a tandem jump. He would have been 26 years old Thursday, and leaves behind a young son.
Messina's instructor, 28-year-old Christopher Scott, of Sound Beach, was airlifted to Stony Brook University Medical Center and is listed in critical condition. A News 12 source close to the investigation says the tandem pair may have encountered an uncommon weather phenomenon commonly referred to by the skydiving community as a "dust devil."
A dust devil is described as a small, circular wind funnel that can occur on warm, calm days. The source says that due to the high and unpredictable winds, the canopy was severely compromised at an unknown altitude.
Skydiving safety expert Jim Crouch says dust devils are hard to see and can collapse a parachute quickly, causing the jumper to fall several hundred feet within seconds.
Dust devils are very common and prevalent out west, specifically in Arizona.
Rich Winstock, the national director of the United States Parachute Association, said in a statement that the incident is under investigation. He said that preliminary reports indicate that "wind may have been a factor."
Friends say Messina had celebrated his birthday by skydiving for the past several years.
Skydive Long Island was back in business Thursday, and several people said that even in light of this tragedy, the thrill of the jump is just too much to give up.