Sunday, April 5, 2015. Oh God, I thought, as the small plane took off — I don’t want to do this.
My mind kept wandering back to my two babies waiting at home: April, aged almost three, and Ben who was just five weeks old. I shouldn’t be here; I should be with them.
The parachute jump had been my husband Emile’s idea. Something we could do together, he said, which was mainly why I’d agreed. But in the end, he hadn’t been able to join me because he couldn’t find anyone to look after the children.
I’d done thousands of jumps before, so why this overwhelming sense of dread? Why the bubbling nerves, the nausea, the tears welling in the corners of my eyes?
‘This couldn’t be happening! As an experienced parachutist, I knew there was just one chance in a million that a parachute and its backup would fail to work,’ says Victoria (pictured)
After the plane reached 3,000ft, I clambered to the open door near the tail. The jumper in front of me leapt and disappeared into the clouds. Just get on with it, I told myself. Then you can go home.
I jumped. The cold air hit my face and immediately I felt calm. I know what I’m doing, I thought, letting relief wash over me. With my right hand, I deployed the parachute.
There was an uneven jolt. That’s odd, I thought, looking up. I was shocked to see that the lines keeping me tied to the parachute were twisted.
But I knew what to do: I kicked through the air in a circular motion, skilfully unravelling the ropes. As they came free, I felt a second of relief, quickly replaced by horror.
I still wasn’t slowing down. It didn’t make sense: no matter what I did, I couldn’t control the violent spinning.
With the ground hurtling ever closer, I hurriedly detached the main parachute and deployed the back-up, bracing myself for the inevitable jolt. It never came.
The reserve had only partially inflated — I was now spinning wildly across the sky, almost upside down.
I kicked my legs in the opposite direction, struggling against the wind, trying to free the twisted lines. Thank God — the lines are starting to untangle, I thought, as I slowly tilted upright.
Victoria and Emile Cilliers photographed parachuting together in 2011
My relief was short-lived: as soon as the lines had unravelled, I began spinning even more violently.
This couldn’t be happening! As an experienced parachutist, I knew there was just one chance in a million that a parachute and its backup would fail to work.
It never once occurred to me, however, that someone had deliberately tampered with them.
As the ground loomed ever closer, I forced myself to push fear from my mind. I just have to fix this, I told myself, as I fought for my life. My children need me. There’s no other option . . .
I was in my mid-30s when I met the man who would later try to kill me. It was the winter of 2009. I was working as a physiotherapist at an Army base in Larkhill, Wiltshire, when Emile limped into my treatment room.
A physical training instructor in the Royal Artillery, he’d injured his knee badly on a skiing trip. We chatted a little about skiing, and I remarked that it must be similar to skydiving, ‘That feeling of flying; it’s like freedom,’ I said.
Emile had never been skydiving so I began to tell him about the parachute centre where I spent my weekends as a free-fall instructor.
Survivor: Victoria with husband Sgt Emile Cilliers, who tried to kill her
Outside of that, my life felt quite empty at times. I’d imagined I’d have kids by now — but my marriage to an Army troop commander had failed over his affairs.
Gradually, as Emile came in regularly for physio, I became aware of a spark between us. I couldn’t help but notice his eyes — they were a piercing blue. And I really admired Emile’s dedication to his career, undertaking intense rehabilitation because he wanted to join the Royal Army Physical Training Corps. Everything he did, he wanted to do well. I also liked how readily he volunteered details of his life, such as the fact he had two children from a previous marriage.
For our first date, he took me to Wales, where we did an aerial assault course.
I remember us both standing on a platform up in the trees, swaying with the wind and just grinning at each other. Before long, he was coming to my house in the evenings, where we’d talk long into the night.
He was incredibly intense right from the off, wanting to spend every second he could with me. ‘I love you,’ he told me after only a few weeks of dating. I was head over heels in love. I’d never had so much attention before. Emile was the real opposite of my ex, who’d been distant and busy with work most of the time.
After a few months, Emile moved into my house. Should I have been more restrained, less trusting, I’d ask myself later . . . Even then, there were times he made me feel uncomfortable — like when he criticised his ex-wife, Carly, saying she was lazy, work-shy and he’d never even loved her.
I soon met her myself as she insisted on vetting me before letting their kids come over, and we got along fine. But just as Carly was leaving, she dropped a bombshell: ‘I assume you know about the other children . . .’
Victoria says: ‘I was head over heels in love. I’d never had so much attention before. Emile was the real opposite of my ex, who’d been distant and busy with work most of the time.’ Pictured: Emile Cilliers arriving at Winchester Crown Court on November 3, 2017
I felt sick. It turned out Emile had another two kids by a girlfriend, but that she refused to let him see them. The idea that he’d been deliberately hiding this from me was almost too much to bear.
When I confronted Emile, he jumped up from the sofa. ‘I didn’t know how to mention it,’ he said. His voice was trembling and he looked as if he was about to cry.
‘I don’t know if I can stay in a relationship where you’re not being honest,’ I said, pacing the living-room anxiously. ‘I’ve just left one deceitful marriage.’
‘I was always going to tell you,’ he insisted. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t want to lose you.’
‘OK,’ I replied, ‘but we have to be honest with each other from now on.’
After that, Emile’s elder two children were never really mentioned again. And although it bothered me that he could so easily forget them, I was simply too happy to let that worry me unduly.
He cooked meals for me, bombarded me with passion and left notes round the house. ‘I love you so much, have a great day,’ said a Post-it note on a cupboard door in the kitchen. When I opened the door, inside was another note saying: ‘Still love you!’.
We opened a joint bank account because I knew I could trust him. I’d paid off his debts of £2,000, then taught him how to pack parachutes. Soon he’d earned enough at a local airfield to pay every penny back.
All smiles: Victoria Cilliers pictured in 2018 completing her first parachute since the incident
In 2011, he took me to visit his parents in South Africa, where he’d come from originally.
‘You know, Emile has never talked about anyone the way he talks about you,’ his mother gushed one morning at the breakfast table. ‘He really does love you.’
A few days later, Emile and I visited a cheetah sanctuary. Just before we left, the woman showing us around asked: ‘Any more questions?’
‘Yes actually, I’ve got a question.’ Emile turned to face me, taking my hand. ‘Will you marry me?’
The staff must have been in on the surprise because there was a diamond ring on the collar of one of the cheetahs. Taking it off, Emile dropped to one knee. ‘Yes,’ I burst out, a smile spreading across my face. ‘Of course I will.’ I had to fight to choke back the tears. I’d finally be getting a happily-ever-after marriage.
A few months before our big day, we were both ecstatic when I discovered I was pregnant. Sadly, however, I started miscarrying while on a trip to London for Emile to play in a cricket match. As a wave of pain hit me in our hotel room, I said I wanted to go home.
‘But we’re already here now, Vicky,’ Emile protested. ‘I can’t just leave them. Do you want to just take the keys then?’ he asked, offering me the car keys.
Tell the team you’re leaving, I pleaded internally. Tell them your fiancée is having a miscarriage. But he didn’t.
The drive home, with one hand pressed against my tummy, took an eternity. He’s going on a night out in London, I thought bleakly, instead of taking care of me. It felt completely out of character.
Six weeks later, I shoved my disappointment to one side and we flew back to South Africa to get married. I was pregnant once more, and didn’t think life could get any more perfect.
Emile — now a sergeant in the Physical Training Corps — was with me when our baby, April, was born in 2012. He’s so good with her, I thought, watching him laughing and pulling faces at our little girl.
Everything was going so well that it hardly seemed worth mentioning I’d noticed small amounts being withdrawn from our joint account. Then one day I got a red bill from Next, warning I hadn’t paid for my latest order.
What? I rushed to log into my Next account. Apparently I’d bought men’s jeans and a belt.
‘Emile,’ I asked, wandering over to the kitchen, ‘have you been buying stuff on my Next account?’
‘I had to fight to choke back the tears. I’d finally be getting a happily-ever-after marriage,’ says Victoria. Pictured: Victoria in 2018 completing her first skydive since the incident
‘What?’ Emile snapped, his tone taking me by surprise. ‘You seriously think I’d do that? Someone must have hacked into your account. I can’t believe you’d think I’d do that.’
I felt guilty for doubting him. As for Emile, he gave me the cold shoulder until I couldn’t take it any more and apologised. Problems about money began to crop up more and more. Every few months, my phone would be cut off for an unpaid bill, and I’d realise our bank account was empty.
Emile, however, always had an excuse ready — even when I found paperwork that showed he’d taken out an overdraft and a loan in my name. ‘There was a mix-up at work and they forgot to process my wages for this month,’ he insisted.
Any suggestion that I didn’t believe made him fly off the handle. ‘You don’t trust me!’ he shouted. ‘You think I’m capable of lying like that?’
As much as I wanted to protest, it just wasn’t worth it. I’d learnt by now that if I challenged him, Emile would sulk for days. And how was I supposed to prove he was lying?
So I let our financial problems fester, and money continued to leach from my accounts.
I suspected he was buying things connected to his hobbies — photography, climbing and cricket. But whenever I spotted a new piece of equipment, he’d say he’d bought it second-hand or a friend had lent it to him.
Victoria says: ‘Everything was going so well that it hardly seemed worth mentioning I’d noticed small amounts being withdrawn from our joint account. Then one day I got a red bill from Next, warning I hadn’t paid for my latest order.’ Pictured: Victoria skydiving in 2018
Bit by bit, all the monthly bills fell to me. Worse, I’d stopped working at the parachute centre at weekends, feeling I needed to focus on my marriage. So money was tight — yet even so, I broached the idea of having another baby.
Emile’s reaction was to throw his arms around me, looking utterly overjoyed. I instantly put my doubts about him to the back of my mind.
Then, one day, messages from his email account popped up on the family computer. They were from a sex club.
‘Oh,’ said Emile. ‘Well, they just send me messages every so often because I used to go there with my ex-wife.’
He was clearly lying. Why would they suddenly start contacting him years later, when he had a different email address?
A week later, more messages appeared — this time from a woman. One of them read: ‘I had a great time tonight.’ Emile had replied: ‘Yeah, me too.’
Again, he insisted his account had been hacked. ‘Just because your ex-husband cheated on you doesn’t mean you can be paranoid with me,’ he added scathingly.
Emile had told Victoria at one point: ‘Just because your ex-husband cheated on you doesn’t mean you can be paranoid with me.’ Pictured: Victoria skydiving in 2018
Perhaps I really am paranoid, I thought to myself. After all, Emile often spent hours making special meals for us and rarely went out. And I just couldn’t imagine him going to a sex club.
But my doubts flooded back at a friend’s party. A guest had picked up a phone that was ringing, glanced at the screen and gaily announced: ‘Someone’s got a Tinder match.’ It was Emile’s phone.
I felt sick. But once more he had a ready explanation: ‘My mates stuck me on it for a laugh,’ he said, sighing in exasperation.
He was now spending as much time as he could away from home, and even went away for a few weeks on a skiing trip. When he returned, just two days before Christmas, he was a different person.
Completely dismissive of me, he spent all his time glued to his phone. I realised I didn’t know anything about my husband’s life any more.
When Christmas morning came, there was no present for me. ‘I ordered you something but it never came,’ said Emile. Then he announced he was going on a work trip to Germany for a few weeks.
I knew not even army reserves worked over the holiday season. But I was also seven months pregnant and didn’t feel strong enough to leave him. Nevertheless, when Emile returned, I asked if he was having an affair. He denied it, and said he’d be there for me and the baby.
His next words cut like a knife: ‘I’ll stick by you for the first few months, but then we should have a rethink about our relationship.’ Incidentally, he added, he was going on a military diving trip in May — a few weeks after our baby was due.
Victoria Cilliers pictured on October 25, 2017 leaving Winchester Crown Court where her husband was found guilty of attempting to murder her
He’s going to leave me alone with two babies, I panicked. Checking the family computer, I found emails he’d sent to his instructor.
‘What’s the arrangement for accommodation?’ he’d asked about the diving trip. ‘I’m planning to bring my girlfriend.’
Investigating further, I discovered he’d made internet searches for sex and fetish clubs. Just get through the pregnancy, I told myself. You can’t do anything about it right now.
Emile had driven me to a point where I didn’t even recognise myself any more. The woman I used to be would have bailed out of a relationship that was so clearly toxic. But the woman I was now had no confidence that she could look after herself, let alone her children.
His infidelity made me feel totally worthless. Something must clearly be wrong with me for two husbands to think so little of me.
Privately, I decided to give Emile another chance. But if he hadn’t changed by our wedding anniversary in September, I vowed that would be the end of our marriage.
‘I’ll stick by you for the first few months, but then we should have a rethink about our relationship,’ Emile (pictured) had told Victoria
Our son Ben was born that February. Late one evening, soon after I came home from hospital, Emile announced he’d be staying overnight at his barracks to avoid traffic the following morning. He didn’t leave straight away and I wondered what on earth he was doing downstairs.
In the morning, I went to the kitchen to put the kettle on. Opening the cupboard next to the hob, I suddenly smelled something odd. I bent over to peer inside.
Behind the contents of the cupboard was a pipe that fed into the cooker and — yes — I could definitely smell gas.
I turned off a lever attached to the pipe, which seemed to have a smear of dried blood. Was it Emile’s? I knew he’d cut himself over the weekend and had bled profusely.
After alerting Emile, I called a gasman. Taking a look at the pipe, he explained: ‘It looks like one of the bolts has come loose.’
Just then, I recalled a magazine story I’d read, in which a husband tried to kill his wife. ‘Are you trying to kill me’? I joked in a text message to Emile, laughing at the very thought.
‘Why?’ he quickly replied. ‘You cannot be serious about the comment you’ve just made. Why would you think that?’
‘It was Emile who suggested I should do the jump the next day, leaving the parachute in a locker rather than handing it back in,’ says Victoria
As I walked into the living-room, I thought: ‘How could he possibly think that I was being serious?’ Weeks went by. Emile’s aggressive outbursts were starting to become unbearable.
I’d wait till he was snoring then slip outside and walk for hours through the dark streets, completely distraught, trying to process what was happening in my marriage.
Despite everything, I concluded, I still loved Emile. And we might come through this. It might be all right.
And to my relief, Emile did start to change. He seemed to become a little more attentive, helping out with the night feeds and taking an interest in Ben. Most evenings, he was home in time to have dinner.
Maybe we were over the worst; maybe he’d just been through a rough patch. I let myself hope — and one afternoon this hope seemed to be confirmed.
‘You know what I’ve been thinking?’ he said. ‘It would be really good for us to go and jump together.’
My heart leapt. It had been so long since he’d wanted us to do anything together. His tone was warm; it was as though I had the old Emile back. Maybe this would help get us back on track.
I was disappointed when he said he couldn’t find a babysitter, but on the day, he agreed to bring the kids along to watch. I remember thinking he was in a good mood, and hoping it would last.
At the centre, we collected my packed parachute and Emile swung it over his shoulder. Just then April announced she wanted the loo, and he volunteered to accompany her.
‘What’s taking them so long?’ I muttered to Ben just a few minutes later.
When they reappeared, we were told the weather had taken a turn and there’d be no skydiving that day. It was Emile who suggested I should do the jump the next day, leaving the parachute in a locker rather than handing it back in.
That evening, I perched beside him as he was watching TV. He placed a hand affectionately on my leg and I almost jolted in shock.
Things really are looking up, I thought. I almost wanted to cry. Maybe we were becoming a real family again.
Ben had a bad night, wailing relentlessly, and I hardly slept. As I rocked him gently in my arms, I had a terrible feeling about the jump. It was like a sixth sense: something inside me was screaming not to do it.
But Emile urged me to go ahead. He’s planned this for me, I thought; I have to see it through.
The weather was still unsettled, however. ‘Maybe I should just come back,’ I typed to Emile, who’d stayed home this time with the kids.
‘No, you should stay,’ he texted. ‘It says online that the weather should be clearing up soon.’
As the hours went by, there were more encouraging texts. He seems to really care about this, I thought. I can’t give up now.
Eventually, after what felt like for ever, the plane was cleared to take off.
As I plummeted in a violent spin through the sky, there was no sound but the scream of the air. I had no idea how close I was to the ground because my eyes were fixed on the useless parachute above me.
Then out of nowhere, I heard a loud metallic bang. And everything went black.
Adapted by Corinna Honan from I Survived by Victoria Cilliers, to be published by Pan Macmillan on August 6 at £8.99. © Victoria Cilliers, 2020