As erstwhile law-student Mamie Rhea fell from an altitude of 1,800 feet above Island Home that Sunday afternoon in the early spring of 1933, she wore three parachutes, two for safety. When she fell free of the plane, she pulled the rip cord as she’d been trained. The main parachute opened perfectly, and she floated to the surface as 4,000 watched. Maybe it was, as she had hoped, the thrill of her life.
She landed unharmed. But she didn’t land in the circle that Billy Bomar, the traveling stuntman who was her trainer, had drawn. She landed outside the landing field, just a few yards away from Dickinson Island, in fact, in the Tennessee River.
Not far from the shore, she was only waist deep. On shore, thousands watched to see what she was going to do next. Motorboats paused in the river. It didn’t look much like a tragedy. The amateur parachutist had made it back to Earth, alive and apparently okay. But a few could hear that she was screaming.
Rhea was tangled in her parachute, and it was pulling her downstream. Her other parachutes were soaked with water. Experts would say later that three parachutes, wet, weighed at least 600 pounds. The Tennessee, undammed and as hurried as it was every spring, was pulling on her and her parachutes hard.
Everybody was, in one way or another, stuck. On shore, spectators gestured at a police boat.
But she had landed in a shallow sluiceway, separated from the main channel by a gate. He couldn’t cross. The policeman in the boat looked back at the people on shore. He later said they reminded him of films he’d seen of monkeys. Men would jump in the water, then get right back out.
“Everyone seemed to be giving orders for the other to follow,” remarked one reporter.
Those who got closest to her were teenaged boys. Two actually reached her, or almost. Sam Poston, a sophomore at Knoxville High, came close, but found his pants too waterlogged to move. He swam back to shore underwater. Sonny Martin, 15, reached her. Rhea, frantic, grabbed him. But he was unable to free her from her parachutes, and fearing for his own safety, he pulled himself away.
Meanwhile, Bomar’s Curtiss Robin commenced a steep descent as soon as it was clear that Rhea would be landing in the water. Bomar and pilot Fricks were two of the few who knew how dangerous Mamie Rhea’s predicament was. Landing, they leapt from the plane and ran to the shore, wading into the water toward their rookie parachutist.
Mamie Rhea was still pleading for help as she vanished in the rapids. “The girl sank screaming from sight,” reported the News Sentinel. She was not seen again that Sunday.
Several rivermen well practiced in recovering bodies went to work, and dragged the river well into the night.
Even without the evidence of a body, the Monday-morning newspapers pronounced her drowned.
Bomar suggested that once she was in the water, saving her was unlikely. The weight of the woman and the sodden parachutes strapped to her might have capsized an ordinary motorboat. “It would have taken a tugboat to pull her out,” he said, perhaps to allay the collective guilt of all those who did not try.
As it happened, George Wiggs, agent of the Department of Commerce, was among the spectators who watched the fiasco; he was in town investigating the fatal Bearden crash a week before. He made a perfunctory investigation. He could find no violations of federal law.
The event had been a fund-raiser to pay the medical bills of Bomar’s partner, Eris Daniels, who had hurt her ankle in a bad landing two weeks before. While volunteers were combing the river for the body, Billy Bomar grumbled to a reporter that he was disappointed in the take.
Despite his own female partner’s fame, Bomar said he had come to a firm conclusion about his first-time jumper’s gender.
“I’m through with training women from now on,” Bomar said. “They are too nervous.”
In those days before paid rescue squads, the city relied on volunteers for search and salvage duties. Most of them were guys who lived along the riverbanks, fishermen with boats, known as rivermen.
A.B. Henderson, described as a “picturesque fisherman” of 71, lived on Scottish Pike, and knew the river as well as anybody. That Monday afternoon, about 500 feet downstream from where she’d vanished, he found, with his hooks, some ropes that could be parachute cords. He tried to pull it up, but couldn’t. The tangled burden was so heavy he needed the help of two other strong men to haul Mamie Rhea out of the water. She’d been wedged against a submerged coil of steel cable. That area had been searched with hooks several times; the rivermen were puzzled about why nothing had snagged her earlier.
Three silk parachutes had spent a full day on the bottom of the river with the body of Mamie Rhea. The rivermen had hardly detached them before Billy Bomar repossessed them. They were still his, he explained, they were in good shape, and parachutes were expensive. Then he was off to other shows in Johnson City, Bristol, Roanoke. He said he’d come back in a week to check on the “tiny Norwegian” parachutist he’d been traveling with.
Eris Daniels was said to be distraught, sequestered at the YWCA. She hadn’t been up in the plane, but felt responsible. “She was the right sort for a parachute jump,” Daniels said. “Cool and determined.”
Five months later, in an air show in Poughkeepsie, New York, a daring stunt parachutist made a jump before thousands of spectators, but had a serious problem when his two parachutes got tangled.
The Niagara Falls Gazette reported, “William C. Howard, 35, of Houston, Tex., a parachute jumper, fell to his death last night. Known as Billy Bomar, Howard had traveled throughout the country performing stunts. A large crowd witnessed his death.”