Amber Gandolfo had never gone skydiving before Tuesday. And her first trip ended up being one she will never forget.
Gandolfo, 25, of Massapequa Park went skydiving on Tuesday with her boyfriend, Adam Gottlieb, at Skydive Long Island. But what started out as a fun adventure soon turned frightening when Gandolfo and her instructor got caught up in sudden winds and , 60 feet above ground, at approximately 6:25 p.m.
The accident occurred in Calverton near River Road, just east of Grumman Boulevard, as a storm and heavy winds rolled in suddenly.
Recalling her harrowing experience, Gandolfo said, "I'm grateful to be alive."
While it was her first skydiving experience, Gandolfo said she wasn't nervous, just "excited. I really did want to try it -- I like to try new things," she said.
Once in the plane, Gandolfo said she felt some butterflies. "You realize, 'I'm about to jump at 13,000 feet,'" she said. "I was a little nervous." But, with an instructor who assured her he'd always had safe landings, Gandolfo said she took in the experience.
At first, when she jumped out of the plane, Gandolfo said, "It was amazing. The rush of it-- it was great. You do a 60 second free fall. Then, when you pull the parachute, it's even more gorgeous. You're floating."
Talking with her instructor, Gandolfo said he suddenly became quiet, "I could feel his nervousness. That was scary," she said. "I could sense his fear."
Gandolfo noticed others who had jumped from the same plane were closer to the ground. Her instructor, she said, told her, "We're getting caught up on the wind," and tried to find a place for them to land safely.
But the closer they got to the ground, the winds picked up in intensity, and they kept getting dragged. "We got pulled by the wind," Gandolfo said. "We're going over buldings and lakes and ponds. I just kept thinking, 'Where are we going to land?' That's when I started getting really nervous."
Finally, Gandolfo's instructor told her to brace herself, and they landed in the trees. "I put out my arms and legs and covered my face," she said. Although she cannnot remember the moment of impact, Gandolfo said she was sorry she wore shorts and a tank top, as she had scrapes and bruises, but no serious injuries. "I got very lucky," she said.
Being stuck in the tree was the most frightening, Gandolfo remembers. "The hardest part was waiting for the ladder," she said. "You're hanging 60 feet above the ground - that's where you're going to get injuries. I was praying that the parachute would stay where it was. I couldn't have survived that fall. And if I had, I would have had broken limbs, or worse."
Because the trees were so close, firefighters from the Manorville Fire Department had to use a hook to get Gandolfo and her instructor to the bucket. "That was the scariest part, more than jumping out of the plane or landing in the trees. The scariest part was hanging there."
When she finally had her feet on solid ground, Gandolfo said she began "bawling. The emotion hits you," she said. "Every time I tell the story, it feels like the first time. I can't believe it happened. It feels like a dream. I jumped out of a plane and landed in a tree -- it's surreal."
Gandolfo teased her boyfriend after the rescue, saying he owes her a steak dinner. Her parents, she said, didn't know until after she had been saved that their daughter had ever been in danger.
Reflecting on the accident, Gandolfo, who works as a medical assistant in a physical therapy office, said she is "not opposed" to skydiving again. Of her experience, she added, "I definitely got lucky."