ELOY, Ariz. (AP) — An attempt to set a world skydiving record by having more than 220 people free-fall from an airplane in formation turned tragic Thursday when one of the jumpers died during the daring effort.
Sgt. Brian Jerome with the Eloy Police Department identified the victim as Diana Paris, 46, from Berlin, Germany. Her husband told police she had completed 1,500 jumps in her skydiving career.
Skydive Arizona blamed the accident on a malfunctioning parachute that was released too low to the ground to allow a reserve parachute to fully open. The skydiver was declared dead at the scene.
“It had nothing to do with the size of the group or the aircraft,” World Team spokeswoman Gulcin Gilbert said. “It was a malfunction of the parachute.”
The accident occurred during an attempt to break a world record for what is called a “formation jump.”
The group of 222 people from 28 countries was to free-fall from about 18,000 feet, come together in a formation before separating and doing another formation, then pull their parachutes.
The skydivers jumped at such a high elevation that they needed oxygen masks in the airplane, and they hurtled through the air at speeds of more than 100 mph. They need 10 airplanes to hold all the skydivers, who have about 70 seconds to complete the free fall before they have to deploy their parachutes.
The group did not complete the formation during the ill-fated jump and therefore did not set the record Thursday.
But the parachutists quickly returned to the air and completed a special jump to honor their friend — and planned to continue their pursuit of the record. They planned to keep a spot open in the formation to honor the victim.
“Our dear friend cannot and will not be replaced,” said Gulcin, whose group organized the record attempt. “The group will continue to hold the slot open in the skydiver’s honor.”
Skydivers cried and hugged each other and prayed after they learned of the death. But they also had no interest in quitting because of the tragedy.
“You can die crossing the street,” said skydiver Debbie Franzese of New York. “It’s sad, but also it happens. You know, it just happens.”
The victim’s body was found between a half-mile and mile from the drop zone. The parachute was collected by law enforcement and given to the FAA for inspection and investigation.
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 Arizona’s climate and terrain provides clear, sunny skies most days of the year and vast uninhabited stretches of desert that are perfect for 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.
Skydive Arizona has been the site of other skydiving deaths in recent months.
Two skydivers — from Germany and the United Kingdom — died in November as their parachutes collapsed and they fell to their deaths during an attempt to set a jump record.