Skydiver injured in 12,000-foot jump; Facebook strangers rally to pay his bills

Welsh skydiver Ben Cornick is "drugged up and in good spirits" and miraculously alive after a 12,000-foot jump that ended on a parked van in Fiji. Now he owes his care and recovery in a New Zealand hospital to friends and strangers who have raised an estimated $50,000 on Facebook to offset his medical bills, according to his family.

The 31-year-old was an experienced skydiver with more than 2,500 jumps. He was working as an instructor at Skydive Fiji in the South Pacific islands. But his Jan. 14 accident happened on a "fun jump" on his own time.

"On his landing, he was doing his final turn when the riser slipped out of his hand," his cousin Ricky Davies, also a skydiving instructor, told ABCNews.com. "This slowed the turn down and took him off course slightly. This happens from time to time, and it's not an issue, but there was a van parked in the middle of the landing area, and Ben didn't have time to change course and avoid the van."

Skydive Fiji, where the accident happened, said the van was not parked in the landing area and probably saved Cornick's life.

The risers are the 2-foot long straps that rise up off the jumper's shoulders -- one goes forward and one goes back. Skydivers pull down on the risers as the parachute approaches the ground in a move called "swooping."

But when Cornick's riser slipped, it cut the spiral to the ground short by about 45 degrees.

Cornick broke his right femur in three places. The elbow on his left arm was also "smashed into pieces," said his cousin.

So far, Cornick has had two operations on his leg. Doctors also discovered that he had a broken hip and he had more surgery Jan. 21, according to Davies, 32, who is from Swansea in Wales, where the cousins grew up and went to school together.

Cornick went out to Fiji in October and was scheduled to return home for the first birthday of his son, Alfie, on March 24.

"We are still going try to get him home by then," said Davies.

Typically, Cornick is insured for personal injury while on the job, but because he was jumping with his own equipment on a day off, he's responsible for all the medical bills.

So Davies said he set up a Facebook page to help defray medical costs.

Now people around the world have rallied to help Cornick, raising nearly $50,000 in 16 hours for his emergency flight from Fiji to New Zealand for surgery, according to the family.

From his hospital bed in New Zealand Jan. 21, Cornick wrote on Facebook: "As some of you know, in surgery at some point today for a fracture on the hip they missed first time around. Would just like to give a massive thank you to Ricky Davies and Jo [his wife]. They have been amazing. A big shout out to the guy who stumped up the full 20k to get me out a day early and possibly saved my life. You know who you are."

At first, Cornick was taken to one of Fiji's best private hospitals, but it couldn't tackle the complex surgeries he needed, according to Davies.

"The doctors said they didn't have the equipment to deal with it, and he needed to go to Auckland," Davies said. "But that was going to cost about 40,000 New Zealand dollars. But they said within a couple days the leg would start to get an infection, and they would have to amputate."

So Davies and Cornick's parents, who live in the south of England, turned to Facebook to raise money. They stayed up for 48 hours straight, said Davies, setting up bank and PayPal accounts to handle the influx of donations.

"Other skydivers were saying if we were stuck for the money, they would help," Davies said. "Loads of people started asking for bank details. I thought I would get 500 pounds [about $800], maybe a little more. But the donations started coming in from literally all over the world – Brazil, Africa, China, every continent."

Cornick was doing a complicated maneuver called "swooping" when he came in at a 90-degree angle at about 40 miles per hour and crashed into the van, according to Tim Joyce, owner and chief instructor of Skydive Fiji, which employed Cornick.

Joyce told ABCNews.com that he had warned Cornick not to do the maneuver with his small high-performance parachute.

"We actually discourage that over here because of the high risk," he said. "It's like a Formula One car driving on the road. ... It was a combination of a very high-speed maneuver and no margin of error."

"He misjudged or was too low to carry out the whole thing," said Joyce. "It's not an illegal thing to do, but it can cause obvious problems, and I don't want my staff to be injured. In 10 years, we've never had anything related to this, and it was very distressing."

Joyce also said that the company had urged Cornick to buy personal insurance, but he declined.

Davies said his cousin thought he was insured for all jumps and disagreed with Joyce's account of what happened. "Ben has jumped that same parachute the same way over 1,000 times," he said.

Both Joyce, who viewed the video of the jump, and Davies agreed that in the end, the van likely saved Cornick's life.

"If he had gone in the direction of the van and tried to turn that low to avoid it and popped on to the ground, he would probably be dead now," said Davies.

The family is talking by phone to Cornick "five times a day," knowing that money is better spent on medical treatment than on a 24-hour fight from England to New Zealand, said Davies. "He needs every penny we can get."

Davies said today that the family had now met their fundraising goals.

As for his recovery, Davies said it would be at least a year until his cousin skydives again. "We just have to wait and see what the long term damage is."