Have you ever been told to go jump off a bridge?
Russ Frank of Towamensing Township decided that was what he wanted to do for his 65th birthday.
Bridge Day at Fayettesville, W.Va., is one of two sites in the United States where BASE jumping is legal. BASE stands for bridges, antennas, spans and earth (mountains).
The bridge crosses the New River Gorge in West Virginia and is part of a National Park Service system - the third largest single-arch bridge in the world and the highest in North America. On the third weekend in October the road is closed for a mile on both sides of the bridge. Jumping has to wait when trains pass through the area.
Registration opens on July 1 for online signups. It starts at noon and only the first 400 get spots. Within two hours 90 percent of the spots are filled. Anyone wishing to jump from the 876-foot-high bridge must have 100 skydiving jumps under their belts. Frank has 500.
The oldest jumper was 82 and learned parachuting in the military. The majority are young people.
Jumpers came from 39 states and 12 countries, with only nine coming from West Virginia. There are 130,000 spectators giving the local economy a huge boost. A secret code and special number are sent to registrants so they will be able to rent one of the rooms set aside. One-half the rooms in a radius of 30 miles are reserved for the BASE jumpers.
First timers have to take an eight-hour course the day before Bridge Day and practice jumping from a 20-foot platform because dead air acts differently from moving air when jumping from a plane.
Thirty-five ambulances line the roads to the bridge. Many treat minor injuries.
Vendors are waiting at 6:30 a.m. for the bridge opening at 7 a.m. Job Johnnies are set up every 10-feet along the road. The last jump is at 3 p.m. and everything is cleared and the road reopened by 4 p.m.
Everyone has to have a background check in West Virginia, a photo ID and a separate photo to be used to make a pass, a bomb-sniffing dog checks as people go onto the bridge, FBI and state police have situation teams, extra state police cars are ready as well as the county sheriff. No one can take suitcases or backpacks.
Jumpers are transported by shuttle bus. A dog is on the bus, which goes on the bridge at 7 a.m. Spectators are not allowed until 8 a.m.
Friends, family or rescue personnel get a pass to be shuttled to the landing area reached by a narrow, twisty road that was the only way to cross the river until the high bridge was built.
Russ's wife, Rhoda, and two other couples accompanied Frank. The best view is from below at the landing area where seats are rocks. From there, people on the bridge look four-inches tall. The landing area is designed for rafter off loading and put in.
There are eight to 10 river rescue boats paid by the state to rescue rafters, but today they will rescue jumpers. First timers are expected to land in the water.
"You tell the jumpmaster if you plan to land in the water. He radios the boats that one will be coming to the water and what color the parachute is," Frank said.
Every 20 seconds someone jumps. They are that good. "When I splashed down the boat was heading for me," he said. "The man in front grabbed me by the shoulders and the man in back pulled in the parachute." As he was pulled aboard he was told, "Congratulations."
"It was exciting. It was really pretty, colorful. We had a good spot," said Rhoda.
Russ saw them and was yelling so he got a mouthful of water when he landed. He said at 50-degrees it was cold even though he had a wetsuit under his clothes.
The parachutes have to be spread out to dry because if they are packed wet they will not open correctly. The rented parachutes are packed by professionals. If a jumper plans a second jump he pays $50 to have his parachute packed as soon as possible. Frank wanted to go a second time but the wind was picking up and it looked too difficult for a beginner.
The parachutes are unlike skydiving chutes. There is only one. A small pilot parachute released by the jumper rips the packed chute open and lets it loose. There is no spare and if there was there would not be time for it to deploy because it takes only 8-1/2 seconds to land.
"It is the largest one-day extreme sporting event in the world and the largest one-day festival in West Virginia," Frank quoted from the website. Jumping any other day is subject to a $10,000 fine and a year in jail.
Nine jumpers were hurt seriously enough that they had to be transported to hospitals. One was the first person to land in the water without his parachute opening and survive. He broke his sternum, pelvis, three ribs, his back in three places and punctured a lung. There is a death every two or three years. The man who was hurt waited too long to deploy his parachute. Experienced jumpers tend to wait as long as they think they can, said Frank. Others count three seconds so they pass the bridgeworks and then deploy.
The festival is operated by a group called Vertical Visons, which pays a fee to the park service. It takes professional pictures. Some are taken from a crane high overhead and it swings down to take them during the beginning of the trip to the water. They are offered for purchase over the Internet.
Now Frank looks forward to a BASE jump with oxygen. From 32.000 feet it is called a HALO jump - High Altitude Low Opening. The site is in Tennessee on an old military base. There is also a High Altitude High Opening jump.