Yorkshire father died in accident after skydive over Grand Canyon bought as a wedding anniversary present went wrong

The death of a Yorkshire man who died while skydiving over the Grand Canyon after being given a parachute with holes patched over was accidental, a coroner has ruled.

Christopher Swales died after a skydiving accident near the Grand Canyon in 2019
Christopher Swales died after a skydiving accident near the Grand Canyon in 2019

Christopher Swales was taking part in the skydive over the Grand Canyon back in September 2019, as a 30th wedding anniversary present from his wife Deborah.

The couple, from Harrogate, were on holiday in Arizona where they renewed their wedding vows at the time of the tragic accident.

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The inquest, at Northallerton, heard that thrill seeker Mr Swales was partnered with an experienced military instructor, Matthew McGonagle, for his tandem jump.

Police in the US took the parachute from offices of Paragon Skydiving, with whom Mr Swales had booked the skydive, as part of their investigation into his death, which later ruled his death was accidental.

In a statement, Matthew McGonagle said everything was normal on the morning of the jump. He stated that the winds were high at 27mph - two miles more than allowed in the UK for a skydive to take place, but the American Air Force expert had jumped many times in those conditions.

Mr Swales, a self-employed joiner, and the instructor jumped out of a Cessna aircraft, and the parachute was opened.

Minutes later, witnesses on the ground say the men began freefalling down at speed. When they hit the ground, the father-of-two suffered serious injuries, and staff on the ground performed CPR, but he was later pronounced dead. Mr McGonagle had broken his leg.

From his hospital bed. Mr McGonagle asked about his jumping partner. He became very upset when he was told Mr Swales had died.

The 34 year old told American police that he felt the pressure change as they approached the landing area, and he suspected the parachute had collapsed. After hitting the ground, he remembered little else other than medical staff and being taken to hospital.

The inquest was told Mr McGonagle worked at the US Air Force as a jump master, and he had performed over 1500 jumps. He had an additional weekend job with Paragon Skydiving.

The owner of Paragon Skydiving, Jason Theuma, watched the jump from the ground.

In a statement to police, the 38-year-old said that all the equipment was functioning correctly but maintained that McGonagle must have panicked once he realised they were going to miss the landing area.

Mr Theuma said he saw his employee attempt an "aggressive left turn, midair". He told officers that he saw the two men hit the ground "at high speed in a loud boom and a cloud of dust" 100 yards away from the landing zone.

The American police report stated that they found "numerous patches sewn into the fabric". Defects or holes in the material had been circled with a pen.

Delivering a ruling of accident death, Coroner Jonathan Heath said: "It appears there was nothing untoward at the start of the free fall parachute jump. It then appeared that the landing site was going to be missed. A manoeuvre was performed. The parachute did not recover from that manoeuvre which led to the free fall. On the balance of probabilities… this was an accident."

Seven family of Mr Swales’ family members sat silently listening during the inquest, and two of them began crying as they made a statement, which said: "It is important for these proceedings to establish the facts.

"Chris had a very full life. Full of love and exciting fun times. We had many good times. That is how we are going to remember him."