BASE Jumper Dies After Parachute Fails at W.Va. Festival

A BASE jumper in West Virginia's annual Bridge Day festival was killed after his parachute opened too late Saturday, Fayette County Sheriff Bill Laird said.

The jumper's name was not released pending notification of relatives, but Laird said the man was an experienced jumper. The man died after hitting the New River, 876 feet below the New River Gorge Bridge about 11:45 a.m.

A witness said it appeared the chute didn't start to open until the man was about 25 feet above the water. By the time the jumper reached mid-descent, it was obvious to Lew Whitener that there was a problem.

Click here to read's story about the BASE jumping phenomenon.

Whitener, a photographer with the Register-Herald of Beckley, said the crowd below the bridge gave a "collective gasp" when people realized the chute was not opening.

"It was everybody kind of held their breath then an eerie silence afterward. Everybody kind of looked at each other and said 'Wow,"' Whitener said.

A large rock obscured the crowd's view of the man's body hitting the water, Whitener said.

Jumping resumed after the man's body was recovered by rescue boats and taken to a local funeral home, Laird said. The fatality is the first since 1987 at the popular event. It is West Virginia's largest one-day event and typically draws thousands of spectators and about 400 parachutists to southern West Virginia.

The event started Nov. 8, 1980, with two parachutists jumping from a plane onto the bridge and five jumping from the bridge into the gorge, according to Bridge Day's Web site.

Organizers said the jumper was one of 388 people from 13 countries permitted to jump from the bridge this year. For one day a year, the National Park Service allows people to parachute off the world's second largest single-span bridge to the national river below. Completed in 1977, the 3,030-foot long span also is the second-highest bridge in the United States.

To qualify to jump off the bridge, applicants must have skydived at least 50 times and pay a $75 application fee.

The sport of BASE jumping involves parachuting off buildings, antennae, spans and earth. Since 1981, there have been at least 100 BASE-jump fatalities around the world, according to the World BASE Fatality List, a Web site maintained by a BASE jumper.