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Thrill Seekers Jump From Big Bridge

October 19, 1997

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. (AP) _ The lure of women smiling and cameras rolling were just too much for Bob Jester to resist. So he jumped off the nation’s second highest bridge Saturday in a bright yellow and red chicken suit.

``I think it’s a dumb thing to do,″ said Jester, 60, of Englewood, Fla., as he took part in the annual Bridge Day. ``I like to show off. I get to meet pretty girls, and I get to go on television.″

On the third Saturday of each October, hundreds of thrill-seekers leap 876 feet off the New River Gorge Bridge, their parachutes blending with the fall colors below. In the United States, the bridge is second in height only to the Royal Gorge Bridge, which towers 1,053 feet over the Arkansas River in Colorado.

This year, 320 people signed up to jump. Their hobby _ known as BASE jumping, for Bridge, Antennae, Spans and Earth _ is legal only during special times and places.

Bridge Day, at the span about 40 miles south of Charleston, is one of the approved times, and each year it’s a spectacle.

On Saturday, 12 people jumped off the bridge at the same time, which organizers said broke the world record for a simultaneous BASE jump of 10 people, set in Norway.

``We’re aware of what can happen but we’re all some of the most experienced jumpers in the world,″ said Jimmy Shannon, a Charlotte, N.C., man who was among the 12. ``We all stick together.″

Team Elvis, made up of five men in white jumpsuits, painted-on sideburns and black wigs, traveled from Louisiana and Florida to leap Saturday from the scenic single-span steel arch.

Elvis No. 2, Bill Geaslin, 28, from Shreveport, La., said West Virginia is the only place he knows of that embraces the sport.

``It’s silly that in a free country you can’t jump off a bridge without a waiver,″ Geaslin said. ``Other communities should look at this community and welcome BASE jumping.″

Three people have died during Bridge Day jumps, the last in 1987.

Six jumpers were taken to the hospital Saturday with broken ankles, a broken foot and broken shin bones, authorities said.

Nikolas Hartshorne, a 34-year-old medical examiner from St. Petersburg, Fla., said he got into skydiving and later BASE jumping ``because I have an eroticism with death.″

``I did an autopsy on someone who died skydiving,″ he said. ``When you’re a medical examiner, you’re interested in why people live and why they die. BASE jumping is a spiritual thing for me. It’s when your fear is so intense that your mind can’t control your body. It’s a way to learn about yourself.″

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