On Saturday, in an electrifying extract from her new book, Victoria Cilliers revealed how she plunged 3,000ft after her parachute failed to open during a routine jump.
Her marriage was in tatters thanks to her husband Emile’s serial womanising and out-of-control spending but it hadn’t occurred to her that he might have gone so far as to sabotage her equipment…
My first thought was: ‘I’m still alive.’ Slowly coming round, I realised I was lying on soft soil. I’d just fallen 3,000ft from a plane.
Victoria Cilliers, pictured with husband Emile, revealed how she plunged 3,000ft after her parachute failed to open during a routine jump
Through most of the appallingly fast descent, I’d been fighting for my life as first my parachute and then my back-up had failed to open properly.
Tentatively, I moved my fingers and then my toes and breathed a sigh of relief. Everything works, I thought to myself. I’m on the ground and everything works.
Squinting into the sun, I noted a fuzzy blur of people around me. The blaring noise of an ambulance grew louder in the distance. Then everything went black again.
The next time I opened my eyes, I was in a helicopter, fixed to a stretcher. This is some serious overkill, I thought. I’ve done the checks and I’m not in any pain. I’m absolutely fine.
‘What’s happening?’ I tried to ask when we reached A&E but no words came out of my mouth. The next time I opened my eyes, I was in a small hospital bed. My husband, Emile, was by my side, slouched in a chair.
‘Finally, you’re awake,’ he said, no hint of emotion in his tone. He didn’t bother rising from his seat. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Fine. I’m so sorry — I didn’t mean to cause all of this hassle,’ I replied.
‘It’s fine,’ said Emile. So he didn’t disagree that this was my fault. God, he’s going to like me even less now, I thought, angry with myself for the accident.
The rational part of my mind knew I hadn’t done anything wrong but I still felt culpable. Just when our failing marriage had seemed about to turn a corner, I’d gone and ruined everything.
Yet if anyone was to blame, of course, it was Emile. He was the one who’d been having an affair, the one who’d constantly lied about the money disappearing from my accounts.
Our children — five-week-old Ben and April, aged nearly three — were staying with his ex-wife, Carly, Emile told me. That’s really nice of her, I thought.
I had no issues with Carly: she was a single mother doing her best to bring up her own two kids. Then suddenly I realised I’d no longer be able to breast-feed my baby.
Yet another piece of guilt to add to my list. I’ve messed things up for everyone, I thought.
‘Hello Victoria.’ One of the consultants entered the room. He gave it to me straight: ‘We think you’ve broken your pelvis.’
Not only had my pelvis been smashed but I had four fractures in my spine, I’d broken most of the ribs along my right side, part of my right lung had collapsed and he thought I might also have damaged my bladder
I peered down at the pelvic binder fastened around my hips, finally beginning to comprehend that I must have done myself some damage.
Later, a nurse came by to adjust the binder. ‘What the hell!’ Excruciating pain shot through my pelvis: it felt as if my body was going to rip in two. Just how hurt am I? I wondered in a panic.
After numerous scans, I had the answer. ‘You’re very lucky to be alive,’ said the consultant.
Not only had my pelvis been smashed but I had four fractures in my spine, I’d broken most of the ribs along my right side, part of my right lung had collapsed and he thought I might also have damaged my bladder.
Apparently, I’d survived only because I didn’t weigh much, the jump was lower than usual and I’d landed in an exceptionally soft field that had just been ploughed.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose. I thought about April and Ben waiting for me at home. I’d almost lost everything, I realised.
I peered at Emile, still sitting by my side, but he just looked bored. ‘Give me a kiss and a hug,’ I pleaded internally. ‘Tell me you love me.’ But he didn’t move.
The next step was to transfer me to intensive care, before undergoing a four-hour operation to reassemble my pelvis like a jigsaw.
I was transferred to a trolley, then into a new bed. I screamed both times, sounding like a wild animal. Emile looked on in silence.
The doctor gave my shoulder a sympathetic pat. The lack of attention from Emile was so blazingly obvious that I felt embarrassed.
At least I could see my children — now being looked after by my father and stepmother — on FaceTime. ‘I just want to get home,’ I cried, my heart breaking every time I saw my baby’s face.
Lying flat on my back was now becoming unbearable. Every few hours, the pain would peak and I’d beg to be moved. Meanwhile, I was lonely because Emile had all but stopped visiting.
Now a sergeant in the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, he insisted he hadn’t been allowed any time off. I found that hard to believe but I didn’t have the energy to argue.
The consultants now became concerned about a fragment of bone right by my spinal cord.
It would be safer to remain in hospital for three months, I was told, rather than to operate. I chose the operation; anything to get home sooner.
Using my knowledge as a senior physiotherapist, I worked as hard as I could to get stronger, and — with the help of a back brace — was soon able to take a few painful steps on crutches.
I felt triumphant when I was given a release date — just over two weeks after my accident.
But, oh dear, Emile couldn’t pick me up. Too much on at work, he said. It took three more days before he finally arrived to drive me home.
I learned that my husband had been having an affair with a woman called Stefanie Goller, whom he’d met on Tinder
We barely spoke in the car. Does he wish I was still in hospital, I wondered? At home, I burst into tears when I saw how much Ben had grown.
The first few weeks weren’t easy. I had to shuffle upstairs on my behind and was unable to lift anything — let alone my baby. But I helped out as much as I could.
Eventually, Emile seemed to relax; it even got to the point where he sometimes gave me a cuddle in the evening on the sofa.
Then, one day, a couple of people from the British Parachute Association knocked at the door.
They wanted me to know they’d started an investigation, and that there were slinks missing from my parachute. I was stunned.
Slinks are the vital piece of equipment that connect the harness to the parachute; without them you don’t stand a chance.
‘We’re hypothesising that it was only the pressure from the brake line, pushing against the other lines, that kept the parachute inflated just enough for you to survive,’ I was told. ‘You were a hair’s breadth from being killed.’
Emile hugged me as I broke down in tears. A few days later, they asked if I was OK with the incident being reported to the police. I asked Emile what he thought.
‘Yeah, you should — why not?’ he replied, putting his arm affectionately around my shoulders.
Roll on a few weeks. I was feeding Ben his bottle one morning when Emile clattered down the stairs and rushed out, saying he was late for work.
But Emile never came home. Instead, I found two officers from Wiltshire police on my doorstep that afternoon. My first panicked thought was: God, I hope Emile is OK.
Looking grave, Detective Inspector Paul Franklin said: ‘We’ve come to visit you this evening, Victoria, because your husband has been arrested on suspicion of your attempted murder.’
Each word hit me like a train. ‘He’s what?’ I asked. ‘Are you joking?’ I didn’t even suspect foul play, let alone that Emile might have tried to kill me.
The news was frankly unbelievable, and I was desperate to speak to my husband — but the police wouldn’t permit any contact with him.
The next day, I had to go into the station to give a statement. Had Emile ever been alone with my parachute, they wanted to know?
Suddenly, I remembered that while we were at the parachute centre, April had needed the loo, and he’d volunteered to take her — with my packed parachute still strapped to his back.
But so what? Our marriage hadn’t been perfect, but I was convinced Emile was innocent. How could the police have got this so wrong?
They kept me posted over the following weeks. One day, an officer turned up to tell me they’d searched the Army barracks where Emile was now living.
‘We’ve found pictures of his girlfriend in the room. There was nothing of you or the children in there,’ he said.
‘He’s been having an affair for a while. We’ve seen from text messages that he’d told her your marriage was over, that you had cheated on Emile and that Ben wasn’t his son. Essentially, he’s been planning to set up a new life with his girlfriend.’
Every word cut deep. Me, a cheat? Ben not his son! Furiously, I ripped my wedding rings off my finger and flung them across the room.
‘The person I thought I knew does not appear to exist,’ I choked out. Yet, even then, I never believed for a second that Emile was guilty.
‘Could this have been an accident?’ I was asked. With a heavy heart, I had to admit: ‘Slinks do not break, they really do not.’
The officer also wanted to know if anything else had happened that was odd. My mind flashed back to a gas leak in our kitchen, a week before the jump.
And how Emile — then at work — had been uptight and defensive when I called him about it.
So I told the police, but I truly didn’t believe my husband could have deliberately engineered the leak.
Still incapacitated, I managed to keep things going at home with the help of friends and paid helpers. Every day, I forced myself to exercise, to rebuild my body.
Social services visited the children every ten days. To my astonishment, they told me: ‘If you try to leave the country, you’ll be apprehended at the airport and the children will be removed from you.’
Emile, ironically, was allowed to go abroad. I heard from friends that he was completing sporting events around Europe. The man suspected of killing me had more freedom than I did!
I felt I was being treated like a criminal — particularly when a van-load of police officers arrived without warning to search the house.
The thought of strangers rifling through all of my personal items made me feel violated.
I was now getting flashbacks of my accident, spinning violently through the air as I fought to gain control, and never succeeding.
Even the sound of sirens — outdoors or in TV programmes — would trigger these episodes. Hope was the only thing that got me through this. Hope that the man I still loved would soon be set free.
When my maternity leave ended in late December 2015, I had to return to work as an Army physiotherapist.
In the evenings, I studied for a Masters degree in sports physio — which I was awarded nine months later. At least it kept my mind occupied.
In January 2017, nearly two years after my fall, Emile was finally charged with my attempted murder on two counts, and reckless endangerment of the children’s lives.
I felt the world crash around me: clearly there was evidence compelling enough to charge him.
But being a terrible husband doesn’t make you a murderer, I reminded myself.
The trial began in October 2017. I wasn’t allowed in the courtroom until after I’d given evidence but I followed the case in the papers –—and learned that my husband had been having an affair with a woman called Stefanie Goller, whom he’d met on Tinder.
Even more hurtful was the revelation that Emile had been sleeping with his ex-wife Carly behind my back.
And this was the woman who’d looked after our kids when I was taken to hospital! I felt sick to my stomach.
It was also news to me he had debts of £22,000. I did know, however, about the insurance policy that would have paid him £120,000 in the event of my death.
We’d discussed it together, when I explained that I’d left the children my house in my will.
All too soon, it was my turn to appear in court. I hoped to find clues in Emile’s eyes, but the room was massive and he’d been placed as far away as possible.
For four weary days, I answered questions. At one point, a barrister asked me to look through print-outs of messages between Emile and his girlfriend. ‘Will you call me your Mr Grey?’
Emile had messaged Stefanie. She’d replied: ‘I guess sometimes I will have to obey you.’
Scanning through the texts, I realised Emile really was planning to leave me. ‘I just never want to let you go.
From April onwards I can do random and spontaneous. To be with you, I would do anything,’ he’d promised Stefanie.
April onwards? My accident had happened on the first weekend of April . . . he had also been texting Stefanie while I was in labour.
And he’d sent her these words while I was being operated on after my fall: ‘Vicky was in tears last night saying all she could think of is she didn’t say goodbye to the kids. She’s undergoing surgery right now. One day we might have a family of our own.’
Even more callously, he’d been cheating on both me and his girlfriend with his ex-wife.
‘So tonight,’ he’d written to Carly while I was heavily pregnant with Ben, ‘we f*** twice.’ Seeing this overwhelming betrayal in black and white left me shattered.
But I had to be honest when a barrister asked if I thought Emile had sabotaged my parachute. ‘I don’t know,’ I admitted.
‘My gut instinct says there’s no way he’d do something like that to me — but I just don’t know any more.’
After six weeks, the trial was drawing to a close. I was at home when I heard the news: there’d have to be a retrial because the jurors were unable to reach a
verdict. In the past two-and-a-half years, I’d lost my husband, my social life, my privacy. Now I faced five more months in limbo.
At the retrial, the prosecution went in much harder.
And there were new excruciating details — such as the fact Emile had arranged to have sex with a prostitute in the weeks before my fall.
This was an echo of when I had found emails from a sex club on the family computer.
On the witness stand, he denied ever trying to harm me, and said he’d only been stringing Stefanie along. But his total lack of concern for me was obvious.
At last, more than three years after my fall, the jury delivered their verdict. Guilty on two counts of attempted murder.
I took some time off work to try to get my head round the verdict, but it didn’t help. A few days later, my phone pinged with a text from South Africa. ‘Emile is devastated by the verdict. He still loves you,’ wrote Emile’s mum.
And then Emile himself rang me from prison. I thought I’d cry, but I didn’t feel anything.
‘So, how are you?’ he asked. This is bizarre, I thought. I didn’t speak much, telling him briefly about the kids. Before we hung up the phone, Emile asked if I’d visit him in Winchester Prison.
Seeing him again was surreal. His face looked worn, older than I remembered. I asked him about his infidelities but couldn’t really get an answer.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ he repeated over and over again. ‘Did you try to hurt me with the parachute and gas?’ I asked him. Emile shook his head before burying it in his hands. ‘No, I’m innocent.’
As he started to cry, I realised that I still didn’t know if I believed him or not — but I wasn’t sure I cared either way.
I went back to court for the sentencing. It was only when the judge read out all the details of Emile’s behaviour towards me — the lying, the stealing, his complete disregard — that I finally understood. My husband was a monster.
He was sentenced to a minimum of 18 years. I didn’t even glance at him as I left the courtroom.
At first, Emile bombarded me with letters and phone calls. And at first, I wrote back. He sounded like the old Emile, the one who’d once written me letters full of affection and love. He was constantly wanting me to visit. ‘No one else will come,’ he told me. ‘You’re all I’ve got left.’
Once, I would have felt sorry for him, but no more. After weeks of this pushing, I finally told him in a phone call: ‘I don’t want this. I don’t want this marriage.’ Emile fell silent. ‘Right,’ he then replied. ‘I have to go.’
It had taken me a long time to see how coercive and manipulative he was, and to realise I was actually a victim of domestic abuse.
Sometimes it’s not as obvious as a black eye or a split lip: over the years, he’d exerted more and more subtle control over my life until I felt completely trapped.
It took me longer still to figure out — and fully accept — that he was indeed guilty of trying to kill me.
Today, being free from Emile feels like a second chance. I’ve even started seeing someone new.
Learning to open up to someone again is hard, but we’re taking it slowly and he supports me unreservedly when I’m going through dark days and sleepless nights.
April knows her daddy is in prison because he did something to Mummy’s parachute, and seems to have accepted this. When both children are older, I’ll tell them the whole story.
In December 2018, I officially filed for divorce. But there was one more thing I knew I had to do. A sport I’d once loved had turned into a nightmare, and that wasn’t how I wanted to give up skydiving.
So one day, I steeled myself to do a tandem jump with a man I knew and trusted.
As soon as I boarded the plane, though, I began to panic. My heart rate rocketed and I cried uncontrollably as we climbed two miles into the sky. Yet when it was our turn to jump, I felt myself suddenly relaxing.
Oh my God, I thought as we ripped through the clouds. This is amazing! The parachute opened and our rapid plummet slowed into a wonderful controlled descent.
The landing was textbook. Tearing off my helmet, I was greeted by enthusiastic hugs from my children.
Since that jump, my flashbacks have begun to subside and I’ve finally allowed myself to feel excited about the future.
It’s as though I had to rewrite my memory of the fall: only by jumping again was I finally free of the past.
Adapted by Corinna Honan from I Survived by Victoria Cilliers, to be published by Pan Macmillan on August 6 at £8.99. © 2020 Victoria Cilliers.