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Updated Dec 4, 2013 - 5:59 pm

Skydivers return to Arizona site where 2 died in jump

ELOY, Ariz. — 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 Square One World Sequential Series 2013, a
gathering aimed at setting numerous world records for group skydiving with
participants from around the world. Registrants paid $2,050 to sign up for the
event, sponsored by skydiving equipment dealer Square One. It includes 28 jumps
over about a week.

The registration website says organizers were looking to assemble a team of the
most talented skydivers and would arrange the exact size of each formation jump
based on the number of highly skilled skydivers who applied to participate.

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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