Sept. 23, 2001 – As hundreds of people partied at the Texas Chili Cook-Off on Sapphire Beach Sunday afternoon, construction company owner Edward O'Brien fell to his death after parachuting from a plane overhead, a traditional part of the festivities.
Family friend Kevin Smith said as O'Brien was descending toward the beach shortly before 2 p.m., he "made a short turn and hit the ground too hard."
"I was right here when I heard people clapping, and I saw him coming down," Larry Greaux said on the beach later Sunday afternoon. "When he came over here, he pulled the chute lines — and instead of making the spin to go over there [he gestured], he found dead air and fell straight down out of the sky from 40 feet up."
According to several witnesses, as O'Brien was descending, he called out to people on the beach, telling them to get out of the way. It appeared that he may have tried to change direction to avoid hitting those on the sand below.
Observers said that O'Brien landed hard on the western end of the beach, the opposite end from the main chili festival activities, and then did not move.
Greaux said O'Brien "never moved or spoke" after hitting the ground. He recalled that he had seen the veteran parachutist land once before, safely, at an event sponsored by the Northside Sportfishing Club of Hull Bay.
At least four Emergency Medical Services technicians had been stationed at the beach on a standby basis since Sunday morning for the 17th annual cook-off and beach party. The event traditionally draws a crowd of several thousand people.
Told of the accident by Sapphire Beach Resort personnel, EMS personnel responded immediately to the western end of Sapphire Beach adjacent to the Crystal Cove condominiums. Carmen Wheatley, an emergency medical technician, said as the EMT's arrived, "at least one off-duty physician identified himself" at O'Brien's side.
According to paramedic supervisor Eva Donovan, "We began rendering emergency care," including continuous cardiopulmonary resuscitation. An ambulance arrived by 2:15 p.m. and transported O'Brien to Roy L. Schneider Hospital. Around 4 p.m., an emergency room staff member said the administrator on call had directed her to say the case had been turned over to the medical examiner. She could give no further information.
O'Brien, whose love of parachuting was well known, had become a fixture at the annual Chili Cook-Offs, literally dropping in as one of the attractions, along with the chili-tasting, cold drinks, musical entertainment and games that are all a part of the festivities to raise funds for local service agencies.
Another witness to the accident, local pilot Paul Wikander, gave a similar account of what happened Sunday. He, too, said O'Brien was an experienced parachutist and added that the two of them had been friends for 30 years.
Dennis Murphy, a perennial cook-off competitor, said another participant came by his booth around 4 p.m. and said he had learned via a telephone call to the hospital that O'Brien had died. "It's a terrible shock," Murphy said, adding that one of his daughters and O'Brien's daughter "have grown up together."
O'Brien, the owner of O'Brien Construction Co. in Anna's Retreat, was a 35-year resident of St. Thomas. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and their daughter, Kelly. He was 64.
"Eddie loved life," Kevin Smith said of his friend. "He was doing what he loved to do."


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