NRG

The majestic New River Gorge Bridge, BASE jumpers and a beautiful blue sky proved to be a remarkable combination for Saturday’s Bridge Day festival. Gorgeous autumn weather allowed BASE jumpers (pictured) and rappellers to set records for number of jumps and rappels, respectively, completed at Saturday’s event in Fayetteville. An estimated crowd of 155,000 attended.

FAYETTEVILLE — Saturday morning, Jason McClure’s feet were on the edge of a platform — with 876 feet between him and the New River.

The BASE jumper from Raleigh, N.C., was back at Bridge Day for about the eighth time, to take the perilous plunge from the New River Gorge Bridge.

“You just block everything else out and focus on what you need to do,” he said. “...You gather your thoughts, step off — and it’s quiet, except for the wind rushing beside you. You just enjoy the ride, then deploy your chute.”

Fayetteville temporarily became West Virginia’s largest city Saturday with an estimated 155,000 people converging at the New River Gorge Bridge. The 29-year-old event opens the U.S. 19 bridge to thousands of pedestrians — often coming to watch BASE jumping and rappelling. Bridge Day is West Virginia’s largest one-day festival and the largest extreme sports event in the world.

“BASE” is an acronym for the four types of objects from which one can jump: Building, Antenna (tower), Span (bridge or arch) and Earth form (cliff or other natural formation). Rappelling is the process of descending from a fixed rope.

The New River Gorge Bridge has the world’s second-longest single steel arch span, and its 876-foot height above the New River makes it the second-highest bridge in the country. Bridge Day is hosted by the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce on the third Saturday in October.

“The 11 a.m. crowd looked like our normal 1 p.m. crowd,” said Cindy Dragan, assistant director of the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce and the New River Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

An estimated 450 BASE jumpers — coming from 10 countries — signed up for this year’s Bridge Day, Dragan said. Vendor spaces sold out about three weeks before, and Dragan estimated 75 more vendors would have come, had there been room.

“This is the venue we use to highlight the New River Gorge area,” she said. “People from out-of-state will get here and see that this is not only a great place to play, it is also a great place to live. A man from Michigan came in just for Bridge Day, for the first time. ... He talked about how this is a great event and about the friendly people in West Virginia.”

Bridge Day is a major economic boost for Fayette County and its neighbors, Dragan said.

“All the hotels are full. This helps everyone,” she said. “The gas stations — it’s a ripple-down effect. It goes farther than Fayette County. This also helps places like Raleigh County and Nicholas County.”

Dragan was especially thankful for West Virginia Dodge Dealers being Bridge Day’s sponsor. Without it, there would be no Bridge Day, she said. Countless public safety agencies such as the West Virginia State Police and National Park Service coordinate their efforts to make Bridge Day safe for BASE jumpers, rappellers and spectators.

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Emergency response agencies reported a relatively safe Bridge Day, and they attributed this to constant preparation.

Paul Seamann, director of operations for Jan-Care Ambulance, said 10 BASE jumpers were injured Saturday. Eight required transportation to local hospitals, and two refused treatment. At the bridge’s top, three spectators were taken to hospitals. Two experienced general medical problems, and one apparently had a severe allergic reaction.

Most BASE jumper injuries involved leg and ankle fractures, he said. One man who refused treatment struck rocks on his back, and he had a possible head injury. Around 2:30 p.m., another male BASE jumper crashed into a tree while landing. The impact knocked a large tree branch into a nearby press area.

The number of BASE jumper injuries was far less than normal, and the injuries were minor compared to other years’, Seamann noted.

“Normally, we have 10 to 20, the low end being 15 or so,” he said.

In the past, emergency responders have had to rescue BASE jumpers who have landed in trees, on boulders, on the opposite side of the river from the landing zone or on railroad tracks, Seamann said. Some of these situations have been difficult.

“While we do have people staged across the river, you have to scramble up the banks,” he said. “...We have ropes already positioned in trees in which the jumpers usually land. Before, it took us 30 minutes to an hour to safely get them out.

“...Railroad tracks — that is the worst place.”

Most of the injured parties — who came from Ohio, South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, New York, West Virginia, Colorado and Massachusetts — were taken to Plateau Medical Center, Seamann said.

Chief Ranger Gary Hartley, of the New River Gorge National River, said a BASE jumper’s death in 2006 resulted in those involved with the pre-planning to become more focused for this year. BASE coordinators added new requirements for jumpers that included an increase in the number of successful parachute jumps one must complete before Bridge Day.

“Bridge Day went off very well, and it was one of the best I’ve seen,” he said.

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While emergency responders watched landings with bated breath, BASE jumpers landing below the bridge shouted with delight at each successful landing — and some even made an extra effort to entertain the crowds.

Las Vegas resident Kevin Mullenger attached a Barbie doll to his helmet.

“She’s just an attention-getter to make people smile,” he said.

“That’s what Bridge Day is all about. You have close to 200,000 spectators, every year. Families can have a great time, and if I can make people smile, I’m doing my job.”

Mullenger came to Bridge Day for his seventh year, and noted he used to come to Fayetteville from Alaska.

“It’s beautiful here,” he said. “...I’ve already made friends with the 200 people that took photos of Barbie on my head. I have had pleasant interactions with the people in West Virginia.”

— E-mail:apridemore@register-herald.com

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