By JAMES M. ODATO
Michael Hannagan was in high spirits the morning he attempted an aerial trick on the downhill course at Whiteface Mountain. The maneuver would change his life forever, and cost New York millions.
It was warm and he was happy to be with his wife Rosiley and 10-year-old daughter Alyssa at the Olympic alpine site in Wilmington. “Singing,” he recalled. “Having a good time.”
The Hannagans joined a group of skiing enthusiasts—parents and kids—who had become friends over several months. The group had been meeting at events run by Alyssa’s training organization at the state-run skiing center.
On this day, children and parents of students enrolled in the New York Ski Educational Foundation program gathered at Whiteface to celebrate the end of the season with a final group activity. They brought plates to pass during an awards ceremony, but first they did a bit of skiing. NYSEF had arranged for the use of the ramp to try landings into the 50-square-foot Whiteface US Airbag.
Near the bottom of the slope, Hannagan skied into the airbag for the first time. He made a straight approach and landed in the middle of the bag on that first jump, just right.
A few minutes later, Hannagan watched an adult from their party perform a backflip into the bag. The man was smaller than Hannagan and landed safely.
At 6-foot-2 and 172 pounds, the 44-year-old Hannagan was a fit, seasoned triathlete. He had placed 1,007th out of 2,277 participants the summer before in the Lake Placid Ironman.
“I never did backflips,” Hannagan said recently. “But the whole point of the airbag was to try a trick and have a soft landing; it was the perfect place to try things out.”
He lifted off and performed a backward somersault into the Olympic Regional Development Authority’s airbag, but found little resistance, landing on the back of his head on Whiteface’s hard, icy surface.
He broke his neck using an airbag marketed as offering a super-soft landing for “Superheroes.”
Hannagan has been paralyzed from the shoulders down since 11:15 a.m. that day—March 17, 2013—about 15 minutes before the NYSEF group was scheduled to meet in the lodge for its potluck.
Stunned skiers watched in distress as Hannagan looked like he was dying, said Mary Hoyt, a NYSEF ski coach who trained Hannagan’s daughter.
NYSEF executives did not respond to the Adirondack Explorer’s inquiries.
Hannagan sued ORDA for negligence. Last fall, New York paid him a $15 million settlement.
Hannagan injured the C3—the third vertebra from his brain. The break would have happened regardless of a neck injury he incurred in a car accident as a high school student, he said.
An avid soccer player, scuba diver and all-around athlete for most of his life, Hannagan is a 50-year-old quadriplegic hoping for a scientific breakthrough that will allow him and others like him mobility again.
In his lawsuit, he blamed ORDA for failing to turn on a blower to inflate the lower part of the bag that was supposed to catch his fall. Only the upper blower was in operation, he said. There was no lower cushion, he said.
ORDA has declined to discuss the matter.
After the hard landing, a couple of people from his group, one a medic, assisted him. A helicopter crew airlifted him to a Burlington, Vt., trauma center where he lay in intensive care for nine days, some of it in a coma. Hooked up to a respirator, he was transferred to a New Jersey rehabilitation center, where he stayed for more than three months. There, he learned to breathe on his own again, but he continues to need a ventilator at night, when he can’t control breathing muscles while sleeping.
He has made some progress, trading a CPAP respirator that hooked up through a tracheotomy for a less invasive version. He learned to control an iPad and phone with a mouth stick.
Small steps like that improve his life, he said, but he needs 24-hour-a-day care.
He started the Southwest Catastrophic Injury Fund to pay for his hospital bills, including costs to stay at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, in New Jersey.
At the time of his injury, Hannagan was an investment banker and senior vice president at Raymond James & Associates in New York City. He also had careers in advertising and as a lawyer.
He and his family and their dog had had a good life in New York. They had a home in Manhattan and a three-bedroom retreat in Jay, just nine miles from Whiteface. After his injury, he grew disenchanted with the state’s medical care and treatment offerings. He moved to California to be closer to doctors in spinal damage research.
Reached by the Explorer, Hannagan was reticent about granting an interview. After a week of thought, he spoke about the many problems a person with disabilities endures, the shortened lifespan he anticipates, the importance of supporting spinal injury research.
He hopes the settlement from New York State will cover his medical care; his wife is his primary caregiver and can’t work. She turns him every two hours in attempts to prevent skin lesions.
The months since his accident at Whiteface have seen a series of challenges and some disappointments. When Mila, the family’s Nova Scotia retriever, was first allowed a visit at the rehab center, his Adirondack hiking and swimming sidekick “didn’t recognize me,” he said. “I smelled differently. I didn’t interact with her. Everything had changed.”
He tried living again in his Manhattan apartment. He found himself passing out from dizziness. None of the major hospitals wanted to offer rehab services, he said. He found few buildings accessible for him and his wheelchair.
He read about researchers at UCLA who had won federal funding to test ways to help people like him regain upper body mobility. “Everybody else thinks about walking again but it would be a lot better for me to have my arms and hands back.”
A Michigan native who moved to New York after graduating from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1998, Hannagan reset his life. He relocated to Los Angeles in 2014 to be close to researcher and neurosurgeon Daniel Lu.
Hannagan created the Michael Hannagan Foundation to raise awareness and funds for treatments to help people living with spinal damage. He hopes the foundation can assist Lu and other doctors doing “the best research and achieving the most life-altering outcomes,” Hannagan said. The goal, he said, is to allow doctors to work with patients, not spend time chasing grants.
At UCLA, Lu included Hannagan in a group of 19 spine-injured patients. Lu has applied electromagnetic charges on Hannagan’s neck to test nerve sensations. More trials are planned once Hannagan gets over a chronic pressure ulcer on his lower back that has caused him to remain in bed for nearly a year. He hopes to heal from the bedsore and return to his wheelchair and increase his activities soon.
Lu says in a video on the Hannagan Foundation website that 250,000 Americans live with spinal injuries and that 11,000 people annually damage their spines.
Hannagan’s lawyers, who wouldn’t grant an interview, told New York Court of Claims Judge Judith Hard that Hannagan sustained his injuries because of ORDA’s negligence. They said the authority, which operates the state’s Nordic and alpine skiing centers, didn’t maintain the airbag appropriately.
They accused ORDA of not warning Hannagan of the risks of injury or death by attempting the backflip. They also claimed that ORDA failed to properly instruct him on how to use the airbag, failed to correctly design and build the ramp to the airbag, and failed to adequately inflate the airbag.
ORDA was represented by the state Attorney General’s Office, which moved for dismissal. The authority asserted that Hannagan was at least partly to blame. “Negligence or culpable conduct of the claimant caused or contributed to cause the injuries and/or damages,” the state assistant attorney general said in a 2015 petition. He wanted any award to be reduced by the proportion of Hannagan’s fault.
Hard let the case go forward and, instead of a trial, the parties settled. After attorney fees, Hannagan received about $10 million.
Jon Lundin, an ORDA spokesman, said the authority would have no comment on the case. He said that ORDA no longer offers the airbag attraction. “ORDA and Whiteface believed that this would be a nice addition to the resort, enhancing the customer’s overall experience,” he said. “It was discontinued because it did not generate the revenue that was anticipated.”
The airbag is among various ideas drawn up by ORDA on ways to bolster business. It has mulled installing a mountain coaster and a long zip line on Whiteface as envisioned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. For a few seasons, the authority offered “4×4 Alpine Expedition” guided tours on Whiteface that critics said exposed ORDA to liabilities. Added in 2012 to lure visitors in summer and fall, the rides on all-terrain vehicles were ended last year because the ATVs were needed for other projects, Lundin said.
As for the airbag, each user signed a waiver and was instructed to land on their feet and to wear a helmet, Lundin said.
Whiteface bought the airbag for $32,000 and set it up first during the 2012-2013 season. ORDA stopped using it after the 2016-2017 season, Lundin said. Complaints to the staff had focused on the airbag’s location, he said.
A website for Whiteface described the airbag as allowing “park enthusiasts to practice their tricks.”
Hannagan’s lawyers deposed several people and flew the airbag to a test facility in Arizona to examine landings, Hannagan said. Dummies hit the ground just as Hannagan had, he said.
At least two TripAdvisor commenters described bad experiences with the Whiteface airbag.
In 2014, a woman from Virginia said she didn’t receive satisfactory directions and landed uncomfortably. She said she was amazed that she wasn’t “paralyzed.”
A writer from Boston said the airbag experience from October 2016 resulted in months of pain and treatments. The writer said the impact was harder than expected and that he was diagnosed with whiplash.
“I emailed Whiteface about this two months ago, urging them to discontinue this dangerous activity, and they have not responded,” the writer posted May 18, 2017. “I am putting this out there in the hopes that I can help prevent this from happening to anyone else.”
Arsen Ambartsumyan, president of US Airbag, said he became owner of the company—which was not sued by Hannagan—three years after Hannagan damaged his spine. “Whenever someone gets (injured), it is a sad story, but you have to consider the sport these people are in. The people practicing, it’s not some family saying let’s have some family fun,” he said. “They’re the people who make the choice of the extreme sport.
“The airbag is there to prevent serious injury. Can someone get hurt from (an) airbag? Obviously somebody has.”
On Facebook, US Airbag calls its product a “huge and super soft stunt airbag used for skiing, snowboarding, BMX, and freefall.” The motto of the company, founded in 2009, is: “Soft Landings for Superheroes.”
The Whiteface bag was about as wide as a small house, taller than a tall man, looking like a huge yellow pillow puffed up in the middle.
The web site for the region’s tourist office, LakePlacid.com, provided a video and photos of the airbag in January 2013 with this description: “This is your chance to ride off a 12-foot-tall jump on your skis or snowboard and land in a 50’x50′ pillow of air!!!” The account said that the jumps into the bag are “a great way to safely practice and learn new tricks.”
Athletes using a different company’s airbag at the Utah Olympic Park do so under medical and trainer supervision, said Tom Webb, communications director for US Ski and Snowboard, in Park City, Utah. He said he is unaware of any significant injuries by users there, and his organization does not track airbag injuries nationwide.
The bag in Utah is in operation in spring, summer and fall, he said, and is built with an inclined landing surface to minimize risks.
Hannagan acknowledged signing a “standard waiver” provided by the youth ski program. No one gave instruction on using the bag, he said.
Before his accident, he was planning ways to improve his Ironman skills. He loved hikes in the Adirondacks and four-hour bicycle rides that would take him as far as the Peru apple orchards. He biked at 21 mph, he said, over hills and bumpy roads.
Now he ponders his future differently. “If I could make the foundation successful that would be great; if I can help other people avoid some of the battles I’ve had to fight that would be a good thing to leave behind.”
A person who survives for a year after an injury such as Hannagan’s at the age he was injured lives another 22 years on average, says the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Life expectancy falls to 13.3 more years if the person relies on a ventilator, the center says.
Medical costs top $1.1 million in the first year for the type of injury Hannagan sustained and $191,400 each year thereafter, the center says. The most frequent causes of death for survivors are pneumonia and septicemia.
“I’m just trying to lead a meaningful life the best I can while I can,” Hannagan said. “The statistics are all against me as far as lifespan. I just have to do my best in the shortened time I have.”
He suffers constant and sometimes mysterious pain, he said. A draft or a gentle touch to his chest can put him in agony.
As he works to avoid using drugs, Hannagan has learned about natural substances that help with pain, stress and sleeplessness. He created a company, Botanicaide, to sell hemp-extract products. He hasn’t been able to devote sufficient time marketing and developing the business because of recent medical setbacks.
“I’ve always been a person to look forward,” he said. “I try to learn from the past. You have to stay positive, be directed and do what you can. I try not to think about too much in terms of what the alternative would have been.”
Each day he is busy. Recently he joined his homeowners’ association board.
“I like to say I’m the hardest working quadriplegic you’ll ever meet.”