Monday, October 23, 2006

Bridge Day Tragedy

Fayetteville, West Virginia is home to the New River Gorge Bridge, the highest single-span arch bridge in the world. Every fall Fayetteville celebrates Bridge Day, which is your basic town fair and street festival, but with the added feature that the state closes the bridge to traffic for the day, so people can walk out on it and check out the view from 876 feet above the river.

Bridge Day is renowned among BASE jumpers--people who parachute-jump off of fixed structures (Buildings, Antennas, Spans, and Earth [i.e. a really high cliff] ). Several hundred folks each year make the Bridge Day pilgrimage in order to leap off the thing. In 1984 I attended Bridge Day with my grandmother. I'll never forget watching those men and women, one after another, diving off the railing into the void. As much as their daring, I remember their skill in steering their parachutes: almost every jumper hit the strip of sand, 20 feet wide or so, between the water and the trees.

Fatalities are rare among BASE jumpers, but last weekend's Bridge Day festivities were marred by the death of a jumper named Brian Lee Schubert, who happened to be one of the pioneers of BASE jumping, having leapt off El Capitan in Yosemite National Park 40 years ago. NPR's Noah Adams happened to be present and to have interviewed Schubert a few minutes before he jumped. Schubert was 66 years old and hadn't made a parachute jump in a number of years, and had never used the type of chute he wore that day. An investigation will be made, but one suspects it was a case of overconfidence and human error: Schubert never let go of the pilot chute in his hand. Strange, and very sad.

More pictures of Bridge Day BASE jumpers here.

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