A Colorado resident who died this week during a hang-gliding accident near Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District is being remembered as a pioneer of the sport and an all-around Renaissance man.
Craig Pirazzi, 56, of Paradox and Telluride, was dragged off a cliff when strong winds swept through the Indian Creek area just as he was attempting to take off at about 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 24.
The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office said in a press release that Pirazzi spiraled uncontrollably, falling an estimated 300 feet.
According to four separate accounts of the incident, Pirazzi and others were working with a commercial filming crew in the area.
Four-time world aerobatic hang-gliding champion John Heiney – a close friend of Pirazzi’s from San Marcos, California – launched off the same cliff just minutes beforehand.
According to Heiney, wind gusts were worsening when Pirazzi launched.
“It was maybe getting to be too strong (in terms of) conditions,” he told the Moab Sun News.
“The idea is to launch into an updraft,” he said. “You want an updraft, but not (one that’s) too strong. The wind does weird things and swirls around (then). That’s what happened to Craig, and it pulled him over the edge.”
Others at the scene, led by Moab Cliffs and Canyons Executive Director Brett Sutteer, rappelled down to Pirazzi in an attempt to render aid. It took Sutteer about 15 minutes to reach him, and although Sutteer administered CPR for more than 30 minutes, Pirazzi did not respond and was pronounced dead due to serious head and body trauma.
San Juan County Search and Rescue crews worked through the night as they hoisted Pirazzi’s body and two other gliders back up the cliff, the sheriff’s office said.
Heiney said that Pirazzi had a real passion for flying in the desert terrain around Moab, and described his friend as a “much-loved, good, honest guy.”
Along with Heiney, Pirazzi was featured in the 2014 documentary “Free Flyers,” which chronicles their adventures with other hang-gliding pilots as they launch from some of Utah’s most iconic flying sites.
“Craig had a passion in particular for doing cliff launches throughout the beautiful canyonlands,” Heiney said.
The ruins of an ancient cliff dwelling beneath the launching site seemed to have special significance to Pirazzi, according to Heiney.
“He knew the canyonlands well and studied the history,” he said.
Brett Schreckengost of Ophir, Colorado, said that his friend pioneered many of the cliff launch sites around Indian Creek, and agreed that the area had a special place in Pirazzi’s heart.
After a friend and hang-gliding pilot from Durango, Colorado, took his own life last year, Pirazzi was the one who released the man’s ashes during a memorial ceremony above Indian Creek, Schreckengost said.
“I know he had a deep connection to the area,” he said.
Tim Territo of Telluride said Pirazzi was always there to help people who were less fortunate, including a paraplegic friend from Durango and a friend who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“He had a huge heart and really cared about the underdog,” Territo said.
Territo, who introduced Pirazzi to his future wife Heidi Attenberger more than 20 years ago, said he first met his friend during a snowstorm in Telluride. Pirazzi was digging his motorcycle out of the snow to go for a ride, and Territo thought to himself, “I knew I’d be friends with this guy.”
San Miguel County Coroner Emil Sante, who serves on the Telluride Ski Patrol and local Emergency Medical Services crew with Attenberger, called Pirazzi a true Renaissance man.
Although he may have been known for his “off-the-wall stuff,” Pirazzi was a carpenter by trade who built his own house, as well as an accomplished “prop master” and special effects wiz who was active in the film industry.
Most recently, he worked on Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming movie “The Hateful Eight,”which was filmed in the Telluride area. According to Territo, Pirazzi built the haberdashery and barn sets for the production.
“He knew the film business well – not just as a talented pilot,” Schreckengost said. “He also knew the production side of things.”
Schreckengost first connected with Pirazzi through his involvement with the Telluride Air Force, and he said his friend was instrumental in keeping the club of hang-gliding pilots and paragliders active and adequately funded.
In the 15 years that they were friends, Schreckengost said that Pirazzi stood out as one of a kind, both as a person and as a hang-gliding pilot.
“He was very true to himself and humble in what he did, and also big in the adventurous stuff he pulled off and did over his lifetime,” he said.
Territo said that Telluride community radio station KOTO has been inundated with calls in the time since residents first heard about the accident. Many of his close friends, meanwhile, are still at a loss for words.
“I’m feeling for his wife Heidi and all of his friends and family members,” Schreckengost said. “That’s all I care about right now.”
Craig Pirazzi remembered for diverse interests, helping others
He was very true to himself and humble in what he did, and also big in the adventurous stuff he pulled off and did over his lifetime.