John Denver sang a song, called “Country Roads,” in 1971 which describes West Virginia as “Almost Heaven.” He might have changed that descriptive slogan to “Almost Insane,” if he’d lived long enough to attend the annual Bridge Day celebration in Fayette County, West Virginia.
This extreme sporting event attracts hundreds of B.A.S.E. jumpers from around the world who get 6-hours, one day a year, to voluntarily plunge nearly 900-feet off the New River Bridge.
These daredevils have to deal with strong, erratic winds in the New River Gorge which can either carry them aloft to the bulls eye landing target, or drive them into the danger zone of trees, rocks, or rushing rapids.
The jumpers use parachutes specifically designed for quick deployment to avoid a potentially-deadly crash landing, just seconds away. Rescue boats are on stand-by for jumpers who miscalculate and splash down in the New River. There’s also a medical triage tent on the river bank, plus more than a dozen ambulances on stand-by, in the case of a serious mishap.
I’m not a thrill-seeker, so I can’t understand the desire to leap off a wooden platform and drop to an almost certain death if my parachute fails to open. Still, I’m on my tippy toes at the railing with thousands of other onlookers, hoping to capture a good photo as B.A.S.E. jumpers flip backwards, dive head first, or somersault off the New River Bridge, sometimes as part of a tandem team.
I joined the rest of the crowd as we oohed and aahed at the most daring stunts, but I also found myself holding my breath during the 7 to 8-second drop, always hoping jumpers would make a safe and successful landing. And, of course, I became part of the crowd reaction as everyone gasped and groaned when something went wrong.
The official Bridge Day website states the obvious: “BASE jumping is inherently dangerous, and you can be seriously injured or killed on any jump. Training and preparation help reduce the risk, but even the most experienced jumpers get killed.”
Three B.A.S.E. jumpers have died since Bridge Day began in 1980: Two when their parachutes didn’t open in time, and a third who drowned when his chute got caught in the swift current after a successful jump.
I’m relieved to read an article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail where medical director, Paul Seamann says no one died, and only four people had to be taken to a hospital for orthopedic treatment during the most recent Bridge Day.
Thankful for that!
I hope to be back for more excitement next year, courtesy of the thrill-seekers.