The grieving parents of a young man killed in a skydiving accident last year are desperate for answers about his death. Lane Nichols investigates the tragedy of Theo Williams.
As he plummeted towards the ground above Tauranga at more than 200km/h, the young intern was grinning from ear to ear.
Theo Williams, 21, had just qualified with a diploma in commercial skydiving from the New Zealand Skydiving School and completed three months' work experience at Skydive Tauranga.
His dream was to become a tandem skydiving master and travel abroad after lockdown. That dream was becoming a reality.
As an intern he was working for free over the busy Christmas and summer holiday period, packing "chutes" and picking up valuable air time as a cameraman, filming thrill-seekers who had paid hundreds of dollars to jump from an aircraft while strapped to a tandem instructor.
On the morning of March 20 last year, Williams leapt from a plane at 15,000 feet and tumbled through the early autumn air at terminal velocity in what would be his final jump.
A paying client would later tell investigators Williams "had the biggest smile across his face" as he filmed the high-speed descent.
His parents - in their first interview - say they've been given a copy of that footage but have so far chosen not to view it.
It was a magical day with stunning views over the Pacific Ocean and snaking Western Bay of Plenty coastline, with no hint of what was to come.
"He totally loved it," father Gareth Williams told the Herald on Sunday.
"I think it was exhilarating. If you watched video of him jumping he was in his element. He said it was amazing when he was up there because it was so green and he just loved the views."
There was nothing unusual about the jump. Williams' canopy deployed normally and there was no evidence of gear malfunction or problematic wind conditions as he drifted towards the landing zone.
But moments later, the former Hamilton Boys' High School student smashed into the ground and "bounced" after attempting a mysterious turn at speed just 50 feet from impact.
A post-mortem report would show the young man had suffered unsurvivable injuries.
"His aorta was dislodged from his heart so no amount of resuscitation would have saved him," Gareth says.
"He had a broken leg ... his shoulder was dislocated. He was pretty beaten up."
Horrified onlookers rushed to Williams' aid, performing CPR until paramedics arrived. Williams was rushed to Tauranga Hospital but pronounced dead at 11.24am.
"I was at home on Saturday morning," Gareth recalls.
"The phone rang and it was police. They said Theo was in an accident. He was at hospital and it was serious and could I come over."
A short time later, Williams' mother Claudia Williams received a similar call from a police officer.
"He said to me, 'Theo had a jump this morning and had an accident and I'm sorry he didn't make it'. That's what he said. I said, 'What do you mean he didn't make it'? He said, 'He passed away'."
What followed is a blur.
Gareth and his ex-partner Claudia both made their way to Tauranga, viewed their son's shattered body at a funeral home and collected his belongings.
The next day they visited the skydiving base where Williams died and spoke with his distraught colleagues.
"I said, 'Can you explain what happened?' Gareth says.
"There were tears and they were pretty cut up. They were all shocked and surprised. There was no known cause of the accident and no explanation has come from the investigation either."
Williams' body was sent for a post mortem in Rotorua before being transferred to a Hamilton funeral home for final preparations, then brought back to Claudia's home to lie in state.
Dozens of loved ones came to say goodbye, some teenagers struggling with the confronting sight of their friend's lifeless body.
"He looked beautiful," Claudia says.
"He had a bit of grazing but he looked beautiful."
Having grown up in Germany it was not customary to farewell a dead loved one in the home, Claudia says.
"But when Theo died I knew immediately I wanted to have him in the house, and it was so beautiful. The sun was shining in and we had a lovely coffin. People were sitting around and my house was full of flowers. I was speechless."
Gareth adds: "It's a good way of letting someone go."
Hundreds attended the funeral before Williams was buried at a local cemetery. In a final act of love, Gareth and other mourners grabbed spades and filled in the earth after Williams was laid to rest.
Thirteen months on, the pain is still raw. The family are adjusting to life without their sensitive, adventurous and fun-loving eldest son and brother.
Gareth says they have two other children who need love and support. They continue to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays to keep memories alive.
"He's not forgotten and we talk about him all the time. He's part of our family and always will be."
Cluster of deaths
Williams is one of three skydivers to die in accidents within as many years, two of which remain under investigation by the coroner and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
A Herald on Sunday investigation has revealed that all three fatalities involved recent graduates from the New Zealand Skydiving School, and two occurred during jumps with sister company Skydive Auckland. Both companies share the same Parakai facilities and same four directors.
Irish national Jack Creane, 27, died in March 2019 after a hard landing during a Skydive Auckland jump. He had recently graduated from the school's six-month live-in course.
Williams died a year ago, about three months after completing his studies at Parakai. He'd saved $20,000 to pursue the diploma.
And Sarah-Jane Bayram, 43, was blown out to sea to her death following a midair collision during a Muriwai Beach sunset jump with Skydive Auckland in March.
The young man involved in the collision had recently graduated from the Parakai school.
Prior to the three deaths, there had been no solo parachuting fatalities in New Zealand since 2012.
Senior parachutists have questioned why no rescue boat was on standby for Bayram's jump after it emerged she had raised concerns about gusty off-shore winds before boarding the flight.
They say the cluster of deaths raises questions about training and safety protocols, and whether graduates are properly equipped.
In response, the CAA has announced it is launching an urgent inquiry into the skydiving industry due to "concerning trends" that "require further investigation".
The probe is in addition to investigations currently underway into the deaths of Williams and Bayram. The preliminary focus will be on the recreational skydiving sector involving amateur solo parachutists, but could be broadened as information "comes to hand".
The agency is now "actively monitoring the sector" and promises to use all available regulatory tools to ensure safety standards are up to scratch, including prosecution and enforcement action.
The Parakai companies have welcomed the review. They are defending their safety record, saying graduates receive proper training but leave as certified parachutists who are responsible for observing aviation safety rules.
Senior skydivers spoken to by the Herald on Sunday are worried about inexperienced parachutists with a thirst for adventure attempting high-risk manoeuvres they are not ready for.
And New Zealand Parachute Industry Association chair Stuart Bean has voiced concerns about a culture change in young skydivers, who are watching dangerous moves on YouTube then trying to emulate what they see.
'God had a hand on me'
Williams' parents are perplexed by the circumstances surrounding his death. They say he was "meticulous" about safely and took his responsibilities incredibly seriously.
"It doesn't make sense to me," Claudia says.
Though he enjoyed high adrenalin sports such as surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and climbing mountains, Williams "knew his limits" and was aware what was at stake when jumping from an aircraft, Gareth says.
"We talked about it. He was anxious at times and we would talk his anxiety through. As a parent I didn't want to panic and create a rebellion situation where he thought 'they don't want me to do it, I'm going to do it anyway'. So we supported him.
"He was quite strong willed. Trying to stop him would have been the biggest mistake because it would have made him reckless.
"I had conversations with him about safety concerns and that he was going to be someone who jumped with inexperienced tourists and that was a huge responsibility and a huge amount of trust was involved, and he took that very seriously."
Claudia says she was alarmed by Williams' chosen career but did not want to stand in his way.
"He would say, 'Today I was in trouble but I really think God had a hand on me'.
"He knew I would be horrified. He knew I was very scared. But the more he talked about it I thought I can't stop him. I may as well be supportive. Although it was hard, I encouraged him to do it if he believed in it."
'What made him suddenly turn?'
Williams' love of adventure inevitably led him to the world of extreme sport. He made his first ever skydive at the same drop zone where he would later lose his life.
That was about a year before he moved to Parakai to commence the course in July 2020. By the time Williams graduated in December 2020, he had notched up about 200 skydives.
Gareth - who was with his son the night before he died - says there was no reason for his son to attempt a turn at speed so close to the ground.
"He knew not to do that. It's extremely dangerous."
He wonders whether Williams blacked out and lost consciousness before the impact.
"It was a perfect day and he was looking forward to it. The jump went perfectly well until the last 50 feet, and whatever happened there we don't know and the investigation didn't reveal any known cause.
"There was some human error, or we don't know. A year later we still don't know and I don't think we'll ever know what happened."
Claudia says her son was extremely safety conscious. He had an impeccable landing record and was trusted by his colleagues, who often asked Williams to pack their chutes.
The circumstances of his death were "so out of character".
"Theo didn't make those kind of mistakes. He was a safe and careful person and well organised.
"Did something fly into his eye? Did something sting him? Did he black out? What made him suddenly turn?"
Asked about Williams' training and skills in light of the three deaths, his parents did not wish to comment on the Parakai school, saying investigations were underway and people needed to do their jobs.
"We're concerned about safety across the industry. We expect safety to be monitored as normal procedure," Gareth says.
"It's always changing and the industry needs to adapt. If kids are watching stuff on social media that they probably shouldn't be, you can't stop them. But that information needs to be managed.
"With skydiving, if you make a mistake there's no coming back."
Claudia says she has to accept what happened to her son and remain strong for her two other children.
Asked if anything good can come from the tragedy, there is a long pause.
"More experience doesn't necessarily save all lives. It's obvious that this is one of the most extreme sports because it's off the ground. It's somewhat unnatural for a human being.
"I always wanted to skydive as a young girl. I was seriously considering doing that. I'm a very adventurous person, or I was.
"But now, I would tell anyone who wants to become a skydiver, it's not worth the risk. Of course, it's exciting and of course, you can also die in a car accident, but some things are too risky.
"Theo was such a light for so many people and it wasn't worth it."
'Jumping for fun'
Skydive Tauranga director Tristan Webb says Williams had completed his internship at the time of his death and was "jumping for fun" on his day off.
The death had a huge impact on the company, which shut down operations for 10 days after the accident to let staff mourn and attend the funeral.
Williams had been well-liked. He was responsible for greeting customers, packing chutes and made about 25 jumps as a camera operator during his three-month internship.
"As a person, he was just what we were looking for. He was very warm, great with customers and not shy about chatting to people.
"From a skydiving perspective, we didn't have any issues with him. He was what we would expect with the jump numbers he had."
Webb says the fatal jump was ordinary in all respects until the final stage, but he would not comment on what may have gone wrong.
"The CAA is still to release their report on the investigation so I'm not in a position to say what happened after the parachute deployed."
Williams was the third graduate the company had hired from the New Zealand Skydiving School and Webb says he has no concerns about the skill level of former students.
Skydiving is an extreme sport "and accidents happen".
"But why there's been a spike recently I don't know."
Webb says it's possible that inexperienced skydivers are watching expert parachuting moves on YouTube and envisage similar action when they enter the sport.
"But the training that's in place would clearly discourage that kind of activity."
New Zealand Skydiving School joint director Tony Green said Williams was a fantastic student and colleagues were "shattered" by his death.
"For whatever reason, he made that fatal mistake."