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Paraglider killed in 2012 race accidentally drowned, rules coroner

John Clifford died during National Competition in Pemberton



A B.C. coroner has deemed the 2012 death of an American paraglider during a national race in Pemberton an accidental drowning.

John Clifford of Carnation, Wash. fell into the Lillooet River and drowned while racing in the Canadian Paragliding National Competition on Aug. 6, 2012.

Midway through the event, organizers "called the task" — signalling the end of the race — with high winds and storm-like conditions rolling in. All pilots were requested to land, and the 55-year-old Clifford was given radio instructions as he was seen approaching a large storm cloud.

Shortly after, a spectator witnessed Clifford lose control and begin his descent into the river. He entered the water approximately one metre from the riverbank, where he was seen clutching part of his sail and yelling for help. The spectator was unable to assist Clifford due to the steep terrain and strong current before the paraglider disappeared from view.

Search efforts were hampered by the weather and looming darkness, and it wasn't until the following day that Clifford was found submerged underwater in a log-jam approximately 200 metres south of where he was last seen.

Follow-up investigations revealed that organizers did not notify local search and rescue groups, the RCMP or BC Ambulance of the competition prior to race day.

"These agencies were only notified when Mr. Clifford's incident occurred and responded in an appropriate timeframe," coroner Claire Thompson wrote in her report. "It is unknown if any earlier awareness of the competition would have changed the outcome for Mr. Clifford."

But Bruce Busby, VP of the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada, believes the enormity of the racecourse would have made it difficult for responders to rescue Clifford in time.

"It seemed to me that it all happened so quickly that (search and rescue personnel) or the RCMP couldn't have made it to the scene and made a difference," he said. "You're trying to cover several hundred square kilometres to be on the scene instantly when there's a problem."

Still, Busby added that the association is likely to make on-scene safety personnel a requirement at all future gliding competitions.

The coroner found no indication that Clifford's paraglider or safety equipment, which included a GPS unit with flight tracking capabilities, a two-way radio and a SPOT emergency locator beacon, had malfunctioned. It's unclear why the experienced glider failed to initiate the beacon after his descent.

Busby believes the tragedy ultimately could have been avoided.

"It's just unfortunate," he said. "This could've been such a benign and unknown outcome."

Clifford's crucial mistake, according to Busby, was continuing to glide after course officials ended the race and several fellow pilots warned of challenging weather conditions over the radio.