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Parachutists Flock To Bridge For Day Of Legal Jumping

October 11, 1986

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. (AP) _ Hundreds of parachuters braved brisk winds and low temperatures Saturday to jump legally from the nation’s second-highest bridge.

Bridge Day, the second Saturday in October, is the only day on which jumping from the span into the gorge below is legal.

A Canadian died making the jump two months ago, but seven years of Bridge Day jumps, only one person has died, in 1982 when a parachute pulled a man under.

Because of that death, Bridge Day organizers now have boats on the New River ready to rescue jumpers from the rapids.

Officials said three jumpers suffered minor injuries when winds blew them off course and they crashed into trees and rock ledges lining the river.

One jumper’s parachute failed to open properly until about 80 feet above the water. Parachutists and rescue workers cheered when the chute popped open at the last second and rescuers in a boat pulled him from the water.

Wind and temperatures in the low 40s troubled many of the 384 parachutists who had registered to jump, said Robin Heid, secretary of the BASE Jumpers Association.

″It’s dampened their enthusiasm a bit, standing in the cold and with the wind,″ Heid said. ″They have to have more control of their landings this year and not all of them feel so secure about being able to do that.″

One tiny woman shook visibly as organizers helped her climb wooden steps to the railing of the 876-foot-high New River Gorge Bridge. She stood there a minute, hands clenched tight, as jumpers behind shouted ″Head high 3/8″ for encouragement.

Finally, she clenched her lips and let loose a shrill whistle, shouted, ″Ready. Set. Go.″ and walked off into the air. Jumpers waiting on the bridge deck chimed in with shouts of their own as they watched her fall.

The bridge plays host to more than jumpers on Bridge Day. Fayette County organizers estimated this year’s event would draw 200,000 visitors, including people who wanted just to walk across the span and gaze upon fall foliage.

The bridge accounts for the lion’s share of base jumps in the United States, says the United States Parachute Association. Base jumps are so called because they are made from buildings and other structures or cliffs. The USPA says the bridge is the only site in the country where base jumping is legal.

Seven of last year’s 450 jumpers were hospitalized. Six suffered broken ankles, among other injuries, and the seventh suffered head injuries and a broken leg.

Base jumping was popularized in the late 1970s by Carl Boenish, a Hawthorne, Calif., skydiver who died in a base jump from a cliff in Norway in 1984. His wife, Jean, became executive director of the United States BASE Jumpers Association after his death.

She maintains the fatality rate for base jumping parallels that of skydiving, but the parachute association estimates that one out of every 70,000 skydives ends in a fatality and that one in every 200 base jumps ends in death.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s highest bridge is a 1,053-foot-high suspension bridge over the Arkansas River in Colorado.

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