The extreme sport known as BASE-jumping started a little more than 20 years ago. "BASE" is an acronym, whose letters B.A.S.E., stand for Buildings, Antennae, Span (as in bridge span), and Earth the different kinds of fixed objects the dare devils like to jump from, with their parachutes.
Because of the obvious danger and the fact that jumpers must often trespass on private or state-owned property, the sport is basically illegal in America. However, there is ONE place where the jump becomes legal once a year, for six hours. Bridge Day is held October 19 in Fayetteville, West Virginia.
"Ready, set, skydive!"
More than 300 dare devils from around the world gathered on the earth's largest single arch bridge for the planet's biggest extreme sporting event. Again and again, the jumpers in brightly colored suits leapt over the edge of the bridge into a gorge more than a quarter kilometer deep. For six magical hours, state law enforcement "looked the other way" while the New River Gorge Bridge, which links a national highway, is closed down for the event.
Vending booths selling everything from food, to flowers went up as thousands of people crowd the area. Jumper Joe Webber from Indiana says he waits for this event all year. "We get people from all over the world, our friends who we go travel around the world and jump with all come together and hang out for the weekend and jump together and do it legally and do it off an object where we can all jump together four or five at a time," he said.
Jumpers have three seconds of free falling before they release their parachutes, which slow them down. Then the object is to try to land in a small clearing along the woody banks of the New River. But some, like Sharon Gavene from Sydney, Australia, weren't quite so lucky. "I was scared," said Sharon Gavene. "I was nervous, 'cause there are so many people here. I don't know, it went all right. I went in the water because I pulled too low. Didn't make it to the landing area."
For others, like Moe Viletto from California, who helped pioneer the event and the sport more than 20 years ago, this landing is comparatively easy. But the Bridge will always hold a special place in his heart. "The only way we could get trained was testing in the dark," he said. "That's basically how we learned. Events like these really help us because we can film things and really learn from actual jumps. This bridge here has given us daylight testing. In Europe there's a lot of legal BASE-jumping. They recognize it as a sport, not here in the states. Yosemite, or the Royal Gorge any place like that, they catch you, you get a big fine, you go to jail. They keep your gear."
Besides the risk of being caught, there is a real, life-or-death element of danger to the sport. In the 24-year history of Bridge Day, three jumpers have died from their falls, though extreme athletes like to point out that two of the victims actually drowned.
To make the event as safe as possible, all extreme athletes must be certified and have Federal Aviation Administration gear. Once that's taken care of, they can jump as many times as they like.
"It's better than sex"
Falling at speeds of 200 to 322 kilometers an hour, its no wonder the athletes get such a high. Jumpers are now able to maneuver around the landing area with multi-colored square parachutes designed especially for BASE-jumping. Depending on how fast they want to fall, the ride takes anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute. Brazilian, Marta Empinotti-Pouchert remembers her first jump. "When I came out here I heard about this thing called BASE-jumping and actually 16 years ago made my first jump here," she said. " And I've been jumping ever since."
Some of the jumpers can't wait to make the leap in front of a crowd. In fact one man even put a camera on his helmet so that he'd be able to relive the moment over and over.
While for others, being extreme is one thing, doing it in front of a crowd, left them with a bit of stage fright.
While the crowd may laugh, the jumpers have earned their respect and admiration. West Virginia Native Becky Johnson has been attending the event for years and says she's still impressed every time she sees it. "They've been wonderful," she exclaimed. "They've gone from people straight jumping, to people doing flips, back flips, waiting till the last minute to pull their cords and go. It's great."
In addition to extreme BASE-jumping, rock climbers are also allowed to rappel off the bridge on Bridge Day. Benoit Debois and his friend switched climbing locations so that they could take part in the day. "This guy wanted to see crazy guys jumping off the bridge," said Benoit Debois. "He thinks it's cool, but one guy told us this was jumping day on the bridge. So we could not miss it. I've seen it on a TV show and could not miss it. Really excited to try it one time."
For sightseers who wanted a closer look, but felt rappelling was a little too extreme, helicopter rides over the jump site were also available.
The extreme athletes have even inspired sightseer Ray Diceous to try it next year. "I have the greatest admiration for them, because I started sky diving for the first time this summer," he said. "Once I get enough jumps, I might try it myself. I'll look forward to it. You've got to have guts!"
And West Virginia loves the Bridge Day participants. The event brings more than $1.5 million into the local economy.