Skydivers return to Arizona site where 2 died

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

ELOY, Ariz. (AP) -- Skydivers from around the world returned to the air Wednesday at a popular Arizona skydiving location that was the site of a deadly mishap involving two parachutists a day earlier.

Two skydivers were killed Tuesday after they collided during a jump, collapsing their parachutes and sending them plummeting to the ground. The men - one from the United Kingdom and another from Germany - were among about 200 people trying to set world records for group jumps.

Participants met Wednesday and decided getting back in the air was the best way to pay tribute to their friends, many of whom know each other from other skydiving events around the world.

"Of course it makes me a little nervous, but this kind of thing happens. That's the price of skydiving," said Evgenii Dolgopolov, of Moscow, Russia, who witnessed the accident. He planned to jump again Wednesday.

"This kind of thing happens sometimes, but it's very rare," he added.

Witnesses told investigators that both skydivers had open canopies when they ran into each other 200 feet above the ground. The two then fell to the desert floor with a loud thump that could be heard from several hundred yards away. The accident occurred at about 4:50 p.m., said Sgt. Brian Jerome, an Eloy police spokesman.

A third skydiver was injured in an unrelated accident.

Eloy police identified the victims Wednesday as Keiron O'Rourke, 40, of the United Kingdom, who had logged 849 previous jumps; and Bernd Schmehl, 51, of Germany, who also was highly experienced, with 1,707 jumps.

The skydivers are in Arizona for a series of attempts to break world records for sequential jumps involving about 200 participants who create formations in free-fall before deploying their parachutes and floating to the ground. Dozens of women gathered at the site Saturday in a separate event to break the world record for an all-female mass-formation jump.

Skydive Arizona, between Phoenix and Tucson, has become one of the nation's top skydiving spots since it opened in the 1980s. The location is ideal because the weather almost always cooperates, providing clear, sunny skies most days of the year. And the vast, uninhabited desert provides plenty of jumping opportunities.

Skydive Arizona bills itself as having the largest aircraft fleet in the world for skydivers with 12 planes, as well as the world's largest drop zone.

Company officials said in a statement there were no problems related to the aircraft or equipment, and the weather was optimal at the time of the deaths, which occurred on the group's fifth jump of the day. They declined to comment further.

Participants in this week's event said the setting sun around the time of Tuesday's jump was bright and might have caused the victims to lose sight of each other. They also noted it's important during group jumps to not get caught up in taking in the scenery.

"The first thing I do is look around," said Martial Ferre, from France. "I don't enjoy the view of this desert of Arizona. I just look for the others, and I look for a safe landing zone."

As he carried around his parachute gear after a group jump Wednesday with about 180 others, Ferre said getting back in the air was the right thing to do after the tragedy.

"We had to increase the morale of everybody," said Ferre, who was close friends with the victims. "The first thing that we did was to ask people, `Do we want to continue jumping?' Everybody wanted to get back into action to bring this record in memory of these two guys."

According to the United States Parachute Association, there were 19 fatal skydiving accidents in the U.S. in 2012 out of roughly 3.1 million jumps as the industry's safety record continues to improve. In the 1970s, the sport averaged about 42 skydiving deaths per year.

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Statement from Skydive Arizona:

"On December 3, 2013 at approximately 4:45 PM, two highly experienced skydivers collided under their open parachutes at about 200 feet above the ground. Their parachutes collapsed and both skydivers were killed.

"The skydivers were participating in an invitational 200-skydiver record attempt. Names are being withheld pending notification of their families.

"In an unrelated incident, another skydiver in the same group had a hard landing and suffered a back injury.

"There were no problems related to aircraft or equipment. Weather conditions were good and the accidents occurred on the fifth group jump of the day."