By C.V. Moore
Dazzling fall foliage set the backdrop for hundreds of falls of joy during Saturday’s 33rd annual Bridge Day.
Whether for the state fair-like atmosphere or for the spectacle of extreme sport, an estimated 75,000 visitors flocked to the iconic New River Gorge Bridge in Fayette County to watch about 450 BASE (Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth) jumpers from all over the world glide to the dark ribbon of river below.
“Love this bridge. Love this day,” said the day’s jumpmaster, Mick Knutsen. With an orange mohawk that matched the maples, Knutsen served as hype man for the event, encouraging the jumpers and engaging the crowd.
“This is probably one of the greatest spectator sports in the world,” he said.
“It’s an adrenaline rush for me just to watch them,” said Tinna Carper, who came over from Roane County for the day’s festivities.
Pearly gray skies amplified the autumn colors, but a catapult, a wedding and a wheelchair were equally striking images that day.
Of all Saturday’s thrill seekers, perhaps no one more than Lonnie Bissonnette knows how real this sport can be.
A 2004 bridge jump gone wrong left Bissonnette in a wheelchair. But a strong inner drive translated the tragedy into a new challenge.
“One day, my dream just came to me — why not just roll off in the chair?” he said.
The first time he tried BASE jumping as a paraplegic, his chair broke away from him but he managed to land safely. The second time was off a bridge in China. And now the New River Gorge makes three.
As others slammed Red Bulls, Bissonnette quietly prepared beside the jump platform, doing practice rolls and visualizing how he would roll off the edge of the bridge.
Bissonnette has more to think about than the average jumper, since his chair is covered in snag points for the parachute.
“For me it’s extremely important that I deploy at the right time so I don’t entangle with the chair. If something goes wrong, I need to think about getting rid of it and jettisoning,” he said. “Every time you add something to a jump, there is more complexity.”
Bissonette’s jump partner was Bertram Cloutier of Quebec, who wore an enormous stuffed doll strapped to his chest.
“It’s my new girlfriend,” he said.
Cloutier also donned baggy pajamas printed with turtles, which he used like a wingsuit. He has been coming to Bridge Day for 21 years.
“It got better and better,” he said. “People now can do multiple jumps more safely.”
Erika Terranova and Patrick Steiner of Lockport, N.Y., took two big plunges Saturday. First, they married each other before tens of thousands of people. And then they jumped off a bridge together.
“I’m looking forward to jumping off the bridge with her,” an excited Steiner said before the wedding. “We’re glad to be in West Virginia, sharing it with everyone here.”
“This day couldn’t be a more perfect fit,” Erika’s maid of honor told her before reciting a Dr. Seuss poem during nuptials.
“You are the fire in my eyes and today I give you my heart and soul,” Steiner told her groom during her vows. “I believe in you.”
After the jump, the couple partied down in an igloo sponsored by Subaru, handing out wedding cake to strangers who joined their celebration.
By lunchtime, the jump line on the bridge was uncharacteristically empty.
“That means we have really been throwing a lot of people off this bridge today,” said Knutsen. “Literally, throwing.”
And he was right. New this year was a catapult system that hurled select BASE jumpers an extra 20 feet high and 50 feet out from the bridge.
The crowd gasped audibly every time.
“That’s our Disneyland toy,” said Knutsen. “That’s our ride.”
Overheard in the jumpers’ line at Bridge Day — “It only hurts once.”
“It’s not just this once-a-year group of crazies that come in,” maintained Marcus Ellison, 28, of Oak Hill.
Over the years, Ellison has made an “undisclosed” number of jumps from the bridge, usually in the dark.
He was also the first person born and raised in Fayette County to jump off the bridge during Bridge Day five years ago. He said there are lots of reasons to enjoy the day, but for him, it’s an opportunity to show his family and friends from West Virginia that his “parachute friends” are just like him — regular people.
“We don’t have reckless death wishes,” he says. “We think it’s fun.
“I enjoy being a liaison to the rest of the public ... People can see me and relate to me. I’m not just some extreme sport athlete. I’d like to spread my knowledge so people can follow in my footsteps.”
Ellison wants to see more locals put down their cameras and strap on a chute.
“It’s been going on since 1971 — Come on!” he said.
He and others have lobbied the National Park Service to get BASE jumping approved as a use in the New River Gorge National Park, but with no luck so far.
“They just don’t seem to want to work with us, and it’s a shame because BASE jumping can bring a lot of money to this area,” he said. “This bridge is an icon for jumping on the east coast.”
He said Bridge Day is special because it showcases West Virginia at its finest, but having 75,000 spectators isn’t typical.
“Typical is you and your buddy in the dark, breaking the law,” he said. “You don’t want anyone seeing you then.”
West Virginia flair was certainly on display in the tents of 230 vendors who sold food and souvenirs to a bobbing sea of blue and gold ballcaps.
“Above all else, Bridge Day is a showcase for what the Mountain State has to offer,” said Chuck Keeney of Friends of Blair Mountain. “As a historic preservation group, FOBM was excited to participate in the promotion of our state’s culture, which is a main focus of our organization.”
Nearby, Lindsay Behringer of Glen Jean sold jewelry made of old scrip from local mines like Lochgelly, Mount Hope and Scarbro.
From grassroots community organizations to multinational corporations, Bridge Day attracted a diverse group of vendors.
Local women sold hand-made crafts near a Sony tent promoting a tiny, state-of-the art camera.
The United Mine Workers gave out key chains.
Snyders of Berlin gave away 4,000 bags of potato chips.
Gators in a sea of Mountaineers, Yvette Bosque and Jeanette Garcia of the Florida Keys tried sarsaparilla soda for the first time.
But not everyone was selling something. Pastor Roger Pauley of Cranberry Baptist Church, along with some of his congregation, passed out 12,000 pamphlets with facts about the bridge, and verses from the Bible.
“The goal is to get the gospel out. We’ve had great success,” he said.
Among a sea of funnel cakes and acres of kettle corn, one food cart served up healthy, vegan options.
“More people than you think are going for the healthier food,” said Jennifer Miller, owner of the Charleston-based Mission Savvy cafe.
“When people stumble across us, you see a light in their eyes — ‘I can eat something!’” said Emily Jones.
Nearby, on a large blue tarp, tourists snapped photos as jumpers hunched over their parachutes in concentration. After each jump, it’s time to stanch the adrenaline, focus, and repack.
“You have to pay attention to a lot of detail,” said Jesse Bailey, a jumper from Texas. Like all those qualified to jump on Bridge Day, he has more than 100 sky dives under his belt.
“It’s very important that everything is just where it needs to be. You want everything nice and clean and crisp.”
A Jumbotron nearby allowed them to keep an eye on their friends and fellow jumpers, who dived from the bridge in a continuous stream until Bridge Day wrapped up at 3 p.m.
Down at the diving board, a man calmly walked down to the edge of the plank, lay down flat on his stomach, inch-wormed half his body out into the chasm, and flipped underneath the board in a gymnastic turn.
He hung there like that for several seconds, with a huge grin on his face. Then he let go and drifted through space to the churning river below.
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