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Couple’s Marriage Highlights Bridge Day

October 15, 1990

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. (AP) _ Tom King plans to marry Vivian Taylor this Saturday. Right after the ceremony, he’ll jump off a bridge.

King is one of 300 parachuting daredevils who plan to leap off North America’s second-highest bridge 876 feet into the New River Gorge, a canyon slicing through the heart of the Appalachians.

The wedding, on the New River Gorge Bridge, falls on the 11th annual Bridge Day. That’s the one day a year the span is closed to traffic so pedestrians can enjoy the view and the autumn foliage - and parachutists can jump off.

The event attracts the largest number of parachutists who belong to the U.S. BASE Association. BASE stands for building, antenna, span and earth.

″For most of the jumpers, this is it,″ said Jean Boenish, BASE’s executive director. ″They take their vacation time, save their pennies and wait to get out to West Virginia.″

The U.S. 19 bridge, completed in 1977, is the longest steel arch bridge in the world and the second highest in North America, after the 1,053-foot Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado.

About 100,000 spectators are expected, said Cindy Whitlock of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce. Hotels have been booked for months in Fayette County and are selling out fast in Raleigh and Kanawha counties, Whitlock said.

King, 39, a real estate agent in Memphis, Tenn., brought Taylor to Bridge Day last year and ″she literally loved the place.″

″I fell in love with her. She fell in love with me. She fell in love with the bridge,″ he said.

″It seemed logical at the time″ to plan a wedding there, King said.

Taylor, 34, a registered nurse, said the wedding will be as traditional as it can be on a bridge. She will wear a gown, the groom will wear a tuxedo, and there will be five bridesmaids and groomsmen.

After the ceremony, King, two groomsmen and a few guests will leap off the bridge. Taylor said that for her, just watching is enough. She called last year’s experience ″a natural high you just can’t explain.″

But King, a veteran skydiver, said there’s nothing to worry about, even though three people have been killed in leaps from the bridge, two during Bridge Day festivities. The last death was in 1987.

″It’s fun. It’s a sport. It’s challenging,″ King said. ″We don’t think it’s dangerous. Nothing’s dangerous if you know what you’re doing.″

Boenish said most BASE jumpers are trained skydivers. She described the experience:

″As soon as you jump off, you’re kind of suspended, and then you start falling, and you get through that and what you start to get into is that familiar comfort of high air speed.″

King describes the bridge jump as ″high anxiety followed by total euphoria.″

″The jump itself is extremely nerve-racking, but as soon as the parachute opens and everything’s OK, it’s beautiful,″ he said.

The jumpers leap from the bridge’s center and fall at speeds nearing 60 mph before slowing down to land on a sandbar, Boenish said.

Parachutists were prohibited from taking the plunge last year because the river, which is also popular with white-water rafters, was running dangerously high following heavy rain. But about three dozen jumpers went off the bridge anyway and a few were arrested.

The river under the bridge is under federal jurisdiction as the New River Gorge National River. While BASE jumping is banned from federal properties like Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, no one will be banned from jumping into the gorge this year if conditions are favorable, National Park Service Chief Ranger Bill Blake said.

But parachutists who jump when it’s not legal face up to six months in prison, a $5,000 fine, and would be banned for life from jumping off the New River bridge, Blake said.

Boenish expects 300 jumpers from six countries, including Australia and South Africa.

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