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'Miracle 11' skydivers give back: Charitable organization grows from 2013 plane collision over Superior

t10.26.17 Bob King -- 102717.N.DNT.MIRACLEc -- Mike Robinson of Duluth, one of the skydivers who survived the 2013 crash in Superior, gives a check for $500 to Laura Gapske as a donation to the First Witness Child Advocacy Center Thursday at Second Harvest Food Bank. Robinson passed out checks to several area groups. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

SUPERIOR, Wis. — The first time he went skydiving again after the accident felt odd, Mike Robinson said.

"You're mindful that this is my first jump since then," said Robinson, 68, on Thursday, Oct. 26. "I'm double- and triple-checking everything to make sure my gear is safe, it's going to work properly.

"It felt really good to get out of the door, get into the wind, have a nice free-fall, open my parachute — it works just like it should — have a nice landing."

That was in January 2014, in Arizona. About two months earlier, on Nov. 2, 2013, Robinson was part of the "Miracle 11" — nine skydivers and two pilots who survived with no more than minor injuries after their planes collided at sunset in the skies over Superior, Wis.

The spectacular collision just under four years ago resulted in nine skydivers and a pilot escaping safely via parachute and one pilot successfully landing his crippled airplane. It also became an international sensation thanks to the images captured during the mishap from video cameras on five of the skydivers' helmets.

Fruit from that incident was revealed on Thursday, when Robinson announced gifts to a variety of charitable organizations totaling $7,000 from the nonprofit the group formed in the wake of the accident for the purpose of distributing licensing fees earned by their videos.

That all came about after the skydivers — not yet formed as a nonprofit — received $125,000 from NBC Television in exchange for exclusive use of the videos for the first two weeks following the accident. The mishap happened to have occurred ahead of "ratings week," Robinson noted.

The skydivers used the NBC money to help Skydive Superior, the company they worked with, buy a used airplane to replace the two that were destroyed in the collision.

But realizing their videos still had value, the group formed Miracle Eleven Inc., a nonprofit to distribute the fees they earn to other nonprofits. To date, those fees have totaled $32,500, and Robinson announced their latest batch of gifts in a news conference at Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank, one of the recipients.

"A thousand dollars for us is three thousand meals for the Northland," said Shaye Morris, executive director of that organization, in accepting Second Harvest's share of the bounty.

The group previously had given a total of $23,500 to groups ranging from the Duluth firefighters' Operation Warm Coats to Safe Haven Shelter to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The seven active board members — including six of the skydivers and Gary Androsky, who was general manager of Skydive Superior at the time of the accident — each was given responsibility for $1,000 to distribute this time around, Robinson said.

"None of us has taken a penny from this, nor will we ever do that," he said. "What we got out of the deal is we're alive. We're just happy for that."

Although a few of the skydivers have relocated and a few are not active on the Miracle Eleven board, all have remained in touch, he said. All resumed skydiving as well, although some have cut back. They are not in contact with the pilots, both of whom have relocated.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the collision on pilot error, concluding that Blake Wedan, the pilot of the second plane, had been following the first plane too closely.

But there are no hard feelings, Robinson said.

"Prior to this experience, all of us were good friends," he said. "Even though we don't necessarily have contact with either pilot, that's not because of any bad feelings. It's only because they've moved away and they're doing different things in their lives."

Although none of the pilots or skydivers sustained serious injuries, some were left with emotional scars from the traumatic experience, Robinson said.

"There was some very definite (post traumatic stress disorder) that occurred for some of the 11 people," he said. "Some of that remains today, although I believe everybody is healing well."

The group has another thousand dollars to distribute soon, Robinson said. And that won't be the end of it. Just this week, he has been working with a media company in England that wants to tell the Miracle 11's story and will pay $2,500 in licensing fees.

"Even four years later, we're still taking in more money than we ever dreamed we would have," he said.

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