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Parachutists Defy Flood Danger and Make Annual Bridge Jump

October 21, 1989

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. (AP) _ About three dozen parachutists leaped off the country’s second tallest bridge Saturday in defiance of official warnings that flooding made the jump too dangerous on the one day a year it is allowed.

No injuries were reported. Police cited at least one of the parachutists who jumped from the 876-foot New River Gorge National Bridge.

The National Park Service, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, and a group organizing the jump as part of the 10th annual Bridge Day celebration called off the jump Saturday morning, saying the river, which was running 11 1/2 feet above normal, had flooded all safe landing sites.

Authorities did not set another date for the jump because they could not predict when water would subside. Parachutists had traveled from as far away as Europe and Australia and 100,000 spectators had gathered.

Last year, more than 100,000 people turned out to watch 300 divers perform 600 jumps from the center of the bridge.

″I didn’t come here to spin doughnuts,″ said Gerald Harendza, 30, before making the 8-second leap. ″It’s not dangerous.″

Harendza, a construction worker from Lordsville, N.Y., who has performed 135 jumps off buildings, antennas, bridges and cliffs since 1982, landed on a pathway at the bottom of the 3,000-foot-wide gorge.

Nunzio Forte, a 59-year-old father of six who had never jumped off a structure before, landed on railroad tracks after hitting a tree.

″I have six kids - sure I’m worried,″ Forte, a carpenter from Effort, Pa., said before jumping. ″It’s a little risky, but I’m going to try it. I’ve been wanting to do this for my birthday.″

The morning’s third jumper yelled ″Skydive Wyoming 3/8″ as he leaped over the edge of the bridge. Timothy Sell, 23, of Davis, Calif., landed in a parking lot, and was cited for parachuting onto federal property without a permit.

Sell said it was his sixth jump from the bridge.

″I think it’s unfair. I come out here from California and I get this,″ said Sell, who said he didn’t consider the jump dangerous for veterans.

The offense carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail, $5,000 in fines and confiscation of equipment, police said.

The area under the bridge includes state, federal and private land, giving jurisdiction to different law enforcement agencies.

Damien Hansen, 24, a parachute rigger from Melbourne, Australia, opted not to jump.

″It was a wise move, all in all,″ Hansen said. ″We came all the way from Australia, but we’re happy. It’ll be here next year.″

About two dozen parachutists made their jumps in late afternoon as authorities were preparing to clear the bridge of thousands of spectators.

″One sheriff’s guy came on the P.A. and said, ’let’s clear the bridge,‴ one diver said later. ″I said, ’OK, see you later,‴ and leaped.

Unlike earlier divers who landed on the north side of the river, later divers zeroed in on a clearing on a twisting road amid about 150 dodging, cheering spectators on the south side of the river. One diver landed on the roof of a car, another was left dangling in a tree and a third brushed a tree before falling in a pile of leaves.

The river has to be running, at most, at 4 feet above normal to permit jumping on Bridge Day, said Lizzie Watts, a park service ranger. The water level fell only 2 1/2 feet from its level of 14 feet above normal Friday night, despite the opening by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of four floodgates.

Three people have been killed in parachute leaps from the bridge, two during Bridge Day festivities. The last fatality occurred in 1987. No prior jumps were canceled.

Other Bridge Day festivities went on as scheduled, including arts and crafts sales and the detouring of traffic so that pedestrians could walk on the world’s longest steel arch bridge and view the fall foliage.

The only taller bridge in the United States is the Royal Gorge Bridge over the Arkansas River in Colorado.

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