By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A German skydiver who was among 222 people trying to set a world record with a group-formation jump was killed on Thursday in the Arizona desert when her main parachute malfunctioned, police and a spokeswoman for the skydiving facility said.
The skydiver, identified by police as 46-year-old Diana Paris of Berlin, was taking part in a first attempt to set the record on Thursday morning when the mishap occurred, organizers said. She was declared dead on the scene.
"The malfunctioning parachute was released too low to allow the reserve parachute to fully open," said Jocelyn Bernatchez, a spokeswoman for SkyDive Arizona, the facility about 65 miles south of Phoenix in Eloy where the event took place.
Bernatchez said the airplane involved had been functioning properly, and that weather conditions in Eloy were good at the time of the accident, which occurred at about 7:30 a.m. local time.
The team of 222 veteran skydivers from 28 countries had come to the popular U.S. facility to try to break a record for the largest number of people to complete two aerial formations before deploying their parachutes.
The previous record, involving 110 skydivers, was set last year in Florida.
Organizers said safety was foremost in their minds in their planning and execution of the complicated maneuver, an effort that had been 18 months in the making.
Skydivers were to be at an altitude of about 19,500 feet during the record-breaking attempt, with an average free-fall speed of about 120 miles per hour (190 kmh).
Under the plan, skydivers in multi-colored jumpsuits are taken aloft by 10 planes and have 80 seconds to complete kaleidoscope-like formations before opening their chutes.
RECORD QUEST CONTINUES
After the death, the team performed a special jump in Paris' honor involving a maneuver called a missing man formation, said Gulcin Gilbert, a spokeswoman for the World Team group that organized the jump.
The team planned to continue trying throughout the day on Friday, but with 221 skydivers instead of 222, she said.
"Our dear friend cannot and will not be replaced," she said in a press release. "The group will continue to hold the slot open in the skydiver's honor."
Police said the husband of the deceased skydiver told them that she was an experienced jumper who had participated in 1,500 skydives.
Eloy police spokesman Brian Jerome said in a statement the incident was being investigated by police and the Federal Aviation Administration, which would examine whether the parachute did indeed malfunction.
Thursday's accident marked the third skydiving death since December stemming from an attempt to break a record in the sport.
In the same facility last December, two skydivers were killed after colliding at a height of 200 to 300 feet and falling to the ground in what authorities ruled an accident.
Briton Keiron O'Rourke, 40, and Bernd Schmehl, 51, of Germany, were part of a group of 200 skydivers from another organization trying to break the double-formation record.
(Reporting by David Schwartz; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Steve Gorman, Gunna Dickson and Andrew Hay)