Tom Dragan and Butch Christian are but two members of a veteran ensemble which aids in rescues in the New River involving BASE jumpers each Bridge Day.
The Dragan Diversified Inc.-supervised Bridge Day Rescue Team features 15 members, many whom have whitewater rafting backgrounds and have logged numerous years of Bridge Day rescue service.
There's no ego involved, says Dragan, one of the area's whitewater rafting pioneers in the late 1960s with Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited.
"We're on equal footing; it's everybody on a team," said Dragan. "We work well together."
Christian, of Oak Hill, is a former Wildwater guide and a retiree from the W.Va. Dept. of Highways after a 30-plus-year career in the construction division.
"Butch got started with us (from the get-go) and he's been there ever since," says Dragan. "He's in my jetboat, and he's never let me down.
"He's always been there."
"There are some really, really great people that have been there (on the team) a long time, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it, even at my older age," said Christian, 75.
Besides Dragan and Christian, members of the Bridge Day Rescue Team include Shane Dragan, Grant Dragan, Josh Dragan, Missy Dragan McCune, Dave Dragan, Hilarie Jones, Travis Cobb, Eli Shlesser, Lee VanHorn, Mike Mather, K.T. Cobb, Corbin Tonelli and Jay Perry.
The river rescue program features two jetboats and two mini-snouts, as well as a boat for press and VIPs. There's also a spare boat. Besides relying on their years of past experience, Dragan says many of the members remain active in the whitewater industry and stay abreast of current swiftwater rescue training methods. One member, Mather, teaches swiftwater rescue internationally.
Ever scanning the sky to anticipate the next jumper's expected landing spot in the gorge below, the rescuers try to get to a jumper — if a water pick-up is required — in the 10- to 12-second time frame, Dragan said.
Dragan says some years may total only 75 or 80 pick-ups, while others may be closer to 200. "Some days are slow, some are hectic," he said. "It depends on the wind and the water."
Of course, not all BASE jumpers land in the river. Some land on or near the sought-for X landing spot or on one of the several nearby boulders (or, more rarely, on the railroad tracks), while some may get up close and personal with a tree. In the case of the latter, they often require aid from a separate vertical rescue unit.
"A lot of things go into it; the wind is a big factor, the water level is a huge factor," Christian said. "The lower the water level, the larger the landing zone.
"Recently, we always try to tell people they dry quicker than they heal, especially inexperienced people, so that (specifically targeting a river landing) is always their option."
Year after year of experience together in picking up jumpers who have landed in the drink has helped the rescue team members form a strong bond. And Dragan says it's one they aren't eager to break. "Nobody wants to give up their spot."
Christian has been involved in all of the rescue operations since motorized craft came in use (except one Bridge Day which many of the Dragan crew missed due to being out west on a trip).
"Back in the early years, it was a lot more fun down below, before there were so many restrictions because of 9/11," said Christian. The more dense crowds back then resulted in hearty cheers for the jumpers as they concluded their descents. "It was more like a football game; when somebody made a good landing, they were happy."
He says he's been appreciative of the move by the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce/New River Gorge CVB in recent years to undertake tours and shuttles which allow more people to travel down to the bottom to take in the spectacle.
Christian says he's always concerned about the jumpers and their outcomes. "I think I worry more about the jumpers than they worry about theirself, and if I can be any small part of keeping somebody safe, I like being involved," he said. "You're always concerned if someone is under their chute and struggling to get out from under it. You try to get the pilot chute, which is what they throw to bring their canopy out; get the tail of that and that will get them out quicker than anything. Especially, a non-swimmer who's under his canopy really concerns you.
"Occasionally people really panic, but as long as they realize you're there and you've got a hold of them, they're probably okay. But sometimes they're really struggling and naturally panicking like people do."
"You always look forward to it (the event)," Christian continued. "You worry about it and then hope everybody is safe. After that, you relax and have a good time, and you meet so many nice people from all around the world."
The 40th anniversary Bridge Day is set for this Saturday, Oct. 19 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For more on the festival, visit www.officialbridgeday.com.
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