FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. – Thousands of people watched as a pioneer BASE jumper fell to his death during the Bridge Day festival Saturday when his chute opened too late, Fayette County Sheriff Bill Laird said.
Brian Lee Schubert, 66, died of injuries suffered when he hit the New River, 876 feet below the New River Gorge Bridge, Laird said. After his body was recovered and taken to a local funeral home, jumping at the festival resumed.
Schubert, from Alta Loma, Calif., had been well known in the sport since 1966, when he and a friend became the first people to jump from El Capitan, a nearly 3,000-foot-tall rock formation, in California's Yosemite National Park.
"Brian Schubert was a pioneer of base jumping and an icon in the sport," Laird said.
Schubert was taking part in West Virginia's annual Bridge Day festival, which organizers estimated drew nearly 150,000 spectators this year. He was a retired Pomona, Calif., police lieutenant
Lew Whitener, a newspaper photographer covering the event for the Register-Herald of Beckley, said it appeared the chute didn't start to open until Schubert was about 25 feet above the water.
The crowd below the bridge gave a "collective gasp" when people realized the chute was not opening, he said.
"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.
The fatality is the first since 1987 at the popular event. 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. To qualify to jump off the bridge, applicants must have skydived at least 50 times.
There were a total of 804 separate jumps between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., Laird said. Nearly 400 jumpers from 13 countries participated, and several minor injuries were reported. Laird said the jumping was allowed to continue because it didn't appear weather was a factor in the accident.
"No measurable winds or anything would appear to have contributed to adverse conditions making this any more dangerous than base jumping would ordinarily be," Laird said.
Mathis Reimann, who jumped within an hour after the accident, said Schubert's death put a "damper" on the festival.
"It's a dangerous sport and makes it clear that you really have to be careful," said Reimann, who is currently living in Michigan. "There hasn't been a fatality in 20 years, so maybe we all got a little complacent and thought that the worst risk was injury, but it is not. You make mistakes, you pay for it."
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.