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Tragic last moments of Brit skydiver who fell to death due to ‘faulty’ parachute

A British dad-of-two who fell to his death in a freak skydiving accident at the Grand Canyon had allegedly been given a faulty parachute, an inquest has been told.

Christopher Swales, 55, who had never skydived before, was given a parachute that was full of holes and in need of repair, the court heard.

He fell to his death after a military instructor he partnered with was said to have "panicked" and performed an "aggressive left turn" during their descent, leading to the parachute collapsing in midair.

The self-employed joiner, from Harrogate in North Yorkshire, had booked a tandem leap as part of his 30th wedding anniversary gift from his wife Deborah during a holiday in the US in September 2019.

The inquest heard how US Air Force jump master Matthew McGonagle, 34, who partnered with Mr Swales for the jump, told police there appeared to be no problems when they leapt out of the Cessna aircraft together.

But everything changed when he made a sharp left turn after realising they would miss the landing zone.

After seeming to open properly, the parachute collapsed soon after and they began hurtling towards the ground.

When they impacted, Mr Swales suffered multiple injuries, while Mr McGonagle injured his side and broke a leg. Mr Swales died a day before his 56th birthday.

Five people were aboard the plane when it left the Grand Canyon National Park Airport shortly after 9.30am.

Ground winds on the day of the jump were recorded as 27mph – 2mph above the UK legal limit, according to British Skydiving.

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Mr McGonagle, who had previously taken part in more than 1,500 jumps, admitted "there was a bit of chaos" over seating arrangements on the jet.

Speaking to police from hospital, he said: "The only thing that was unique was that the wind was somewhat higher than normal – but that in itself was not unusual as I had experience of high winds."

"He explained they exited the plane, they free fell for a short period of time at which point he opened their parachute," a report by Coconino County Sheriff's Office said.

"He explained their parachute opened and they began to slowly fall, being held up by the canopy.

"He explained that in the last turn as they approached the landing area he felt a pressure change and possibly his canopy collapse.

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"At which point, him and the individual he was attached to fell to the ground which resulted in him being injured.

"He explained from that point forward it got a little fuzzy and he remembered medical staff treating him and him being brought to the hospital."

Jason Thuema, owner of Paragon Skydiving, which authorised the jump, saw the tragedy unfold from the ground, the Mail reports.

The police report claimed Mr Thuema removed the parachute and its canister from the scene because it was "hindering emergency services".

But police officer seized it the same morning.

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DS Jason Lurkins, of the Coconino County Sheriff's Office, said: "During the inspection, I observed numerous patches sewn into the fabric on the top of the chute. Most, to all, of these patches were found to be on the top fabric towards the front of the chute.

"Near these patches I observed, and TSgt (Joshua) Keyes pointed out, some defects/holes in the chute material that appeared to have been noted by the rigger and circled with pen to track movement, or continuing tear, of the material."

But Mr Thuema, 38, said in a statement to the inquest that he did not observe any problem with the equipment on descent.

He added that Mr McGonagle "must have panicked" and "performed an aggressive left turn" before disaster struck.

Coroner Jonathan Heath told the inquest in Northallerton, North Yorkshire: "It appears there was nothing untoward at the start of the freefall parachute jump.

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"It then appeared the landing site was going to be missed. A manoeuvre was performed.

"The parachute did not recover from that manoeuvre, which led to a freefall."

His added that "on the balance of probabilities that this was an accident".

Mr Swales' widow and family issued a statement at the end of the hearing.

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"The inquest was to establish the facts of Chris's death," they said.

"He had a very full life. He was full of fun and love. He was full of spirit and fun times. That is how we are going to remember him."

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