On one day each October since 1980, thousands of people have happily accepted the invitation to "take a flying leap" from the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the western hemisphere. The 31st annual Bridge Day was held on October 16, 2010, at New River Gorge National River in West Virginia.
This event is a big draw for fans of BASE jumping; "BASE" is an acronym for "building, antenna, span, earth," the fixed objects from which these jumpers leap with their 'chutes for what's hoped to be a controlled descent. Officials estimated attendance last weekend to be somewhere between 120,000 and 200,000 people.
According to a park spokesperson, Highway 19 was shut down for about nine hours while visitors watched over 400 base jumpers make a total of just over 1000 jumps; 22 rappel teams also performed about 100 rappels. The base jumping time window, normally about six hours, was extended an additional half hour after Governor Joe Manchin, who attended the event, requested an extension due to early morning fog delays.
The size of the crowd, relatively remote location and the potential for injuries make this a rather complex event, which was managed under a unified incident command team that included over 20 federal, state and local agencies. More than 50 National Park Service employees from all divisions were assigned to the event.
The good news is that this year's event was relatively free of incidents. There were four ambulance transports to local hospitals resulting from base jumping injuries—one fractured arm, one fractured ankle, one knee injury, and one jumper who waited almost seven seconds to deploy his chute and suffered pelvis, back and chest injuries.
One rescuer received a serious avulsion injury while helping a base jumper who landed in a tree and was transported, and two visitors were transported to hospitals due to illness. One other base jumper was treated and released at the scene, as was one of the people participating in the bridge rappel.
The New River Gorge Bridge was completed on October 22, 1977. It is the longest steel span in the western hemisphere (3,030 feet) and the second highest in the United States (876 feet). The Fayette County Chamber of Commerce has hosted Bridge Day on the third Saturday of October in every year since 1980—the only day that visitors may walk across the bridge, and, by special dispensation from Congress, the only day that base jumpers may jump in a National Park Service area.