The 29th annual Bridge Day Festival that was held October 18 on New River Gorge Bridge attracted 155,000 people, including 383 BASE jumpers. During the seven hours the bridge was made available to fun-seekers, the jumpers collected 1,062 parachute descents, two fractures, and one impromptu trip (sans raft) through class IV whitewater.
While the New River Gorge Bridge is not on the premises of the New River Gorge National River, the landing area is (see accompanying photo). The National Park Service accordingly plays an important role in Bridge Day planning and production.
Jumpers launch from a temporary platform extending over the railing. Though the 876 feet of void from the bridge to the river seems like a lot, it actually allows very little time for a parachute to safely deploy. Most jumpers free fall for about three or four seconds, deploy their chutes, and then float for 20 to 30 seconds to a landing site next to the water. Landing in the water is a mistake, since it yields a cold soaking at the very least, and also entails the risk of being swept downstream through the whitewater (a fate that befell at least one jumper this year).
There is always a certain amount of tension, since a botched jump or equipment failure can be lethal. Single BASE-jumper fatalities occurred on Bridge Day in 1983, 1987, and 2006. (An additional BASE jumper fatality was an illegal jump in 1986 that was not associated with Bridge Day; the bridge also attracts its share of suicide jumpers.) Fortunately, injuries this year were confined to one case of hypothermia and the two above-mentioned fractures (one femur and one foot).
Jumpers are normally allowed six hours of fun – 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. -- before being shooed off the bridge so all lanes can be reopened to traffic. This year the governor issued an executive order adding a seventh hour.
Lots of BASE jumpers, including many foreign visitors, feel that even seven hours is not nearly enough. They argue that the single-day format makes no provision for bad weather and guarantees a rush-rush pace that increases the risk of potentially lethal mistakes. The Bridge Day BASE Jumping Coordinators and parachutists from around America and the world have requested that BASE jumping be allowed from the bridge’s catwalk during the a three-day period that includes the two days before the Bridge Day festival (always held the third Saturday in October). Jumping from the catwalk would not interfere with traffic, they argue, nor would the extra two days of jumping disrupt Bridge Day events. Many local businesses strongly support this proposal. Bridge Day is the biggest single-day event in the town and the state of West Virginia.
BASE jumpers are lobbying to have the bridge opened to jumping on additional weekends throughout the year. Some even insist that jumping from the catwalk should be legal every day of the year, though that appears to be a highly unlikely eventuality.
Hats off to the Park Service employees who worked hard to help ensure a safe and enjoyable Bridge Day this year. The unified command system needed to pull it off was quite complicated, involving not only the Park Service, but also the West Virginia State Police, the West Virginia National Guard, the Fayette County Sheriff’s Department, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and a half-dozen other agencies.
Honorable mention: In addition to the BASE jumps and a highline traverse to Fayette Station Road, the bridge hosted 895 rappels and 74 ascents. One of the “personal first-evers” was completed by Don Striker, Superintendent of New River Gorge National River.