Family and friends of a Winnipeg woman killed in a skydiving incident near Gimli are remembering her as an adventurous spirit and a stalwart in Manitoba’s film industry.
Experienced skydiver Jean du Toit, 53, began to spin after her parachute opened during a jump alongside others Saturday. She died after she hit the ground at Gimli Industrial Park, in what is believed to be the first skydiving fatality in Manitoba in more than 20 years.
It took 36 minutes for an ambulance to arrive from the Selkirk area, with Shared Health acknowledging the wait was "significantly longer" than its operational targets.
Gerrie du Toit described his daughter as a "free spirit," who rode wild horses in Mongolia, went whitewater rafting, and often went on meditation retreats.
"She lived the way she wanted to," he told the Free Press from his home in Yuma, Ariz. "I consoled myself knowing she (died) doing what she loved. She died too young."
Born and raised near Johannesburg, South Africa, Jean du Toit moved to Canada in the early 1990s, after initially visiting as an exchange student.
She became a Canadian citizen, and became entrenched in Manitoba’s arts and film communities.
Colleagues described du Toit as selfless, reliable, and someone they would turn to for advice. The freelancer (who was single and didn’t have children) recently worked as an executive producer and line producer, with past credits on some of director Guy Maddin’s projects.
Du Toit gave so much of herself to others through everything from volunteer work with film industry boards and seniors to regular blood donations, said friend Liz Jarvis.
"She was a very caring person. She may not have had family in Manitoba, but she was family to a lot of different groups," said Jarvis, senior vice-president of Buffalo Gal Pictures. "We will miss her very much."
Jarvis last saw du Toit a couple weekends ago at Lake of the Woods, Ont., where they had a "beginning of summer celebration" with some bottles of South African rosé.
Du Toit kept her boat — a wooden 1957 Cadillac with the original Johnson 35-horsepower motor — at Jarvis’s property. Every summer, she spent weekends travelling solo around the lake, visiting islands and sleeping under the stars.
Du Toit was a founding member of the Documentary Organization of Canada’s Manitoba chapter and the 48 Film Festival, and a former On Screen Manitoba board member.
"Jean has been a big sister and a mentor," said 48 Film fest founder Ben Williams. "She was wise beyond her years. She lived a very full, daring and unafraid life."
“She was wise beyond her years. She lived a very full, daring and unafraid life.” ‐ Ben Williams, founder of 48 Film fest
Merit Jensen Carr, president and executive producer of Merit Motion Pictures, said du Toit was a dedicated supporter of independent film making in Manitoba.
"Known for her kind heart, her fierce intelligence and her wry wit, she will be profoundly missed by all of us who knew her," she wrote in an email.
Du Toit worked as a production manager on director Cecilia Araneda’s first feature film, Intersection, which was shot last year.
"Everybody in Winnipeg’s film community knows her. She will have touched everybody in some way," said Araneda. "I can’t stress enough what a generous person she was."
Du Toit had done more than 100 skydives in the last two years, her father said, and she often talked about various aspects of skydiving, including safety.
"Each person must do what they feel they must do," said Gerrie du Toit, who last saw his daughter when she visited him about a year ago.
He is waiting for more information from the coroner and RCMP, who’ve provided preliminary details: "She jumped out and everything was fine. The chute opened and about halfway down she started spiralling out, and she went down."
In a news release, Manitoba RCMP said three other people were in the plane at the time of the jump, and there were no issues with the aircraft.
Du Toit was wearing all the appropriate safety gear, and her parachute appeared to open at the proper altitude before she began to spin, said police.
RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Julie Courchaine said the safety gear has been seized to be analyzed by a skydiving expert. It appeared du Toit was using her own personal equipment.
Courchaine said it is believed to be the first skydiving fatality in Manitoba in about 24 years.
The RCMP have been in contact with the Canadian Sport Parachuting Association. The organization did not respond to a Free Press request for comment Tuesday.
Du Toit was taking part in a jump with Skydive Manitoba, a training facility based at the industrial park, just west of Gimli, some 80 km north of Winnipeg.
"She was a good friend and like a sister," coach and instructor Garth Brown said.
People at the industrial park gave first aid to du Toit, as they waited for paramedics and police to arrive. There were no staffed ambulances in Gimli at the time.
“She was a good friend and like a sister." ‐ Garth Brown, coach and instructor
A spokesman for Shared Health, which is responsible for EMS in Manitoba, said the call was received just after 7:11 p.m., and an ambulance was dispatched about two minutes later.
The nearest one was northeast of Selkirk, some 70 km from Gimli. It arrived on scene at 7:47 p.m.
The RCMP said officers were notified around 7:25 p.m. The first one on scene helped bystanders give medical attention to du Toit, who was unresponsive, until paramedics arrived.
Du Toit was pronounced dead at the scene.
At the time of the 911 call, a Shared Health spokesman said, an ambulance from the Gimli area was providing coverage in Eriksdale, about a 100-km drive from the scene of the skydiving fatality. A second Gimli-based ambulance was out of service.
The spokesman said ambulances were "strategically positioned" in the Interlake area using a "flexible deployment approach," with weekend coverage "stretched due in part to a high number of staff sick calls."
"Efforts to call in casual staff to fill sick calls were unsuccessful," the spokesman wrote in an email.
He said recruitment efforts to fill vacancies, which have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, are a priority.
Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals, said he didn’t ask whether the time would have made a difference in the outcome, due to patient confidentiality.
"Our paramedics said, because of a situation like that, their hearts are breaking," said Moroz, whose union represents about 800 rural paramedics. "We would like to acknowledge the bystanders on scene who provided assistance until paramedics arrived.
"Our hearts are with the family and loved ones affected by this tragic event."
Up to one-quarter of ambulances in rural areas are out of service at any time due to under-staffing, said Moroz, who called on the province and Shared Health to address "worsening" staff shortages.
Rebecca Clifton, an intermediate care paramedic in the Interlake and administrative director of the Paramedic Association of Manitoba, echoed that call.
"Manitoba is in need of more paramedic positions to provide coverage and relief to those paramedics who have been working short-staffed for years," she said.
Manitoba’s workplace safety and health department is looking into whether the skydiving incident falls within its jurisdiction for further review, a spokesman for the province said.
— with files from Kevin Rollason
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.