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Lone survivor of plane crash in critical but stable condition
Owner of local skydiving company mourns loss of 3 passengers, pilot
skydiving plane crash victims
From left, Andrew"Drew" Swenson, Aliaksandr “Alex” Bahrytsevich, Christopher Eldridge, Justin Duff and William Middlebrooks (photos courtesy of Casey Kloess-Finley)

A Statesboro man remains in stable but critical condition after a skydiving plane crash Saturday that left four others dead.

Emanuel County Deputy Coroner Randy Love said Monday that William Middlebrooks, 23, of Statesboro, was listed in stable condition when he contacted the hospital, but Casey Kloess-Finley, whose family owns The Jumping Place skydiving business in Statesboro, said Middlebrooks' outlook is still critical and he is in traumatic ICU at an Augusta hospital.

Four passengers and a pilot were on the small plane in Swainsboro, where The Jumping Place was holding skydiving exercises as the Statesboro location was closed. The pilot, Andrew "Drew" Swenson, and three passengers — Aliaksandr "Alex" Bahrytsevich, Christopher Eldridge and Statesboro resident Justin Duff — all died in the crash.

Around 2 p.m. Saturday, "N4785D took off for the fifth skydiving load of the day … and crashed shortly after take-off," Kloess-Finley said. "The accident is currently being investigated by both the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), and we hope to get and disseminate information as it is being received. We will be sharing all the information as it comes in."

He was on scene when the crash occurred.

"I was with all five people on board the plane moments before take-off," he said. "Skydivers in general love skydiving. This group was an exemplification of that feeling. Shortly after taking off for the fifth time on Saturday, the airplane crashed and four members of our skydiving family were no longer with us."

Just a couple minutes after the plane took off, Kloess-Finley saw "smoke at the end of the runway." He and a man named Dean Gowen were first to arrive at the crash site. 

"With assistance from other members of the local community, Dean put himself in harm's way and pulled two of the people on board from the aircraft as it caught fire," Kloess-Finley said. "These brave men saved William Middlebrooks' life."

Kloess-Finley shared information on each of the crash victims via a Facebook post Monday.

The victims

Swenson, the pilot, had experienced 187 skydives. 

"Just before take-off of the last load, the two of us talked about some skydivers that we both know from Deland, Florida," Kloess-Finley said. "He mentioned his girlfriend and talked about how excited he was to fly for the airlines. I've heard from many friends in the close-knit skydiving world that Drew was awesome as a person and skydiver. He was smiling when I saw him taxi away, and he truly had to love flying."

Bahrytsevich was friends with Kloess-Finley for seven years. He was jumping just for the fun of it Saturday, he said. 

"On his weekend off from skydiving professionally, he wanted to skydive," Kloess-Finley said.

He shared a statement from the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team, of which Bahrytsevich was a member.

"It is with heavy hearts and great sadness that the US Army Parachute Team announces the recent death of SSG Aliaksandr 'Alex' Bahrytsevic. … Alex was extremely passionate about the sport of skydiving and always sought opportunities to coach and mentor other members of the team," the statement reads. "Originally from Belarus, Alex served the US Army with distinction and pride. He served most recently as a demonstrator on the Golden Knights Black Demonstration Team. Alex is survived by his mother, Nattallia, and father, Mikhail."

Kloess-Finley said Eldridge "was so excited to be back in skydiving. When Chris first came to skydive he wanted to do Solo AFF Skydiving because he's always been fascinated with it. He was a ball of happiness and truly loved the jumps he did with us."

Eldridge is survived by two daughters and a girlfriend. Saturday would have been his sixth solo skydive.

Duff "loved to jump out of, off of, everything," Kloess-Finley said. "Justin loved doing tandems, loved AFF, and just loved the sport."

Duff is survived by three children and his wife, Monika, who is pregnant, he said.

Middlebrooks "suffered a number of lacerations to his internal organs and shattered a few bones, but he is coherent and in tremendous spirits," he said. "I cannot thank those men who were first on the scene, for pulling him from the airplane, enough."

Kloess-Finley expressed deep sorrow on his family's behalf about the crash.

"My words cannot express the emotions that all of us that are affected are feeling," he said in a statement released Monday. "Those four members of our family will live with all of us in both our memory and spirit forever. Personally, my experience in life and 20-plus years of skydiving experience have not prepared me or anyone for this.

"I have no guidebook on how to handle a tragedy like this. These are my brothers. I skydive with them. I love them … I was there with them as they boarded the aircraft, and all of the guys were so happy."

Love said autopsy reports for the deceased were not completed Monday.

Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.

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