Company was told to stop skydiving before fatal crash; now ordered to vacate

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HONOLULU (KHON2) — The company in charge of the airplane that crashed in Mokuleia last month, killing 11 people, had been ordered to stop its skydiving operation well before the fatal crash. The company was given a cease-and-desist order from the state Department of Transportation earlier this spring, and today was told to leave. We found out there may be state labor department issues, too, which could make it difficult for families to collect what is owed when workers die on the job.

Sources tell Always Investigating that Oahu Parachute Center has been given a five-day notice to vacate its Dillingham Airfield facility. The plane that crashed in June shortly after takeoff was Oahu Parachute Center’s only aircraft, leased from a mainland owner, and the company has not resumed operations since the accident.

Now we’ve learned Oahu Parachute Center was supposed to have stopped skydiving long before the crash, after the state D.O.T. gave the company a cease-and-desist notice in April over business and aircraft registration issues. The suspension date was May 15, more than a month before the accident.

The owner, George Rivera, has not responded to our requests for comment about this. The D.O.T. is tight-lipped, too, declining to comment despite Always Investigating asking repeatedly for weeks about what kind of lease, insurance and permissions to operate the company had in place. No publicly available state-approved permit or lease could be readily located, while similar agreements can be found for other similar airport permittees.

The crash is among Hawaii’s worst workplace accidents. A majority of those aboard the aircraft worked for Oahu Parachute Center. The company’s D.O.T. compliance issues have the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations on guard, too.

“Clearly it’s throwing up some red flags for us,” said Scott Murakami, labor department director. “Because of the D.O.T. issues about their business compliance, we want to be sure that the employees are taken care of.”

Always Investigating has learned Oahu Parachute Center had no state labor department registrations on file for unemployment, workers’ compensation, prepaid health care or temporary disability insurance. Workers comp alone is supposed to guaranty payouts to families of up to $280,000 per person killed on the job, regardless of liability or fault. Claims must be filed within 2 years of the accident.

“Our heartfelt condolences,” Murakami said. “We know some time has passed, but by all means please, when you’re ready, come to our department or give us a call, file the inquiry and we’ll look on their behalf.”

The lack of labor department employment filings could be because Oahu Parachute Center may have been classifying workers as independent contractors and not as employees. It’s a practice others in aviation say is common in Hawaii.

“It would not be unusual at all. It’s done all over the country,” said pilot Adam Townley-Wren, who worked for a short time for Oahu Parachute Center helping deliver their plane from the mainland and training their initial cadre of pilots. “When I flew for him, I was an independent contractor but it was on a very short-term basis. I don’t really know how exactly they handled it (for other staff). But I can say the industry standard in the skydiving industry, and in a lot of small aviation, is that pilots and parachute jumpers and the tandem masters are usually independent contractors.”

Always Investigating asked the labor department director, under what circumstances would the state start to look at this business or any other to determine whether they’re classifying staff correctly?

“As long as we get an inquiry from the family or any of the surviving members or a benefactor, as long as we get that inquiry we’ll look into it,” Murakami said. “So I would encourage them to get in touch with our office and we’ll start the inquiry right away. All good employers should care about their employees. They’re your No. 1 asset, so take care of them, pay into the programs that entitle them benefits.”

Oahu Parachute Center operated out of a structure built without permits. Sources say none of the structures at Dillingham had permits. D.O.T. had no structure approval process in place, and the airfield lacks utility infrastructure in general. Critics of airport management say the lack of facilities strains maintenance and safety.

“These operators up at Dillingham, I know all of them first hand, they’ve been applying for years to build maintenance facilities,” Townley-Wren said. “If you want to maintain your aircraft there are not a lot of options up there because the state won’t allow it.”

Labor department information about workers comp death benefits, and how families can submit claims, can be found at: http://labor.hawaii.gov/dcd/frequently-asked-questions/  or by calling 808-586-9200

We’ll continue to follow up on the company’s status with the departments such as transportation, labor and other regulatory agencies, and on the status of the federal investigation.


Editor’s Note: DOT provided these documents on July 10, after KHON2’s stories aired July 8 and 9.

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