BRIDGE DAY HISTORY. The only
official Bridge Day History On The Net!
Self portrait in 1976 ..Click Image
of putting it off, I decided to place
in time-line fashion the eventsof
the early history of jumping from the New River Gorge Bridge. This webpage has been on line since 1997 and
most information on other Bridge Day websites have been gleaned (stolen)
from this site.
Much has been forgotten and many people
seem confusedas to how it all started. I will do
my best to use both interviews, newspaper clippings, and memory
in order to present a factual history.
Please keep in mind that during the
3 year period between1979 (when the first jump was made) and
1981 (when the first LEGAL jumps were made) a possible jump or
2 was madeoff the bridge ( like Greg Lawsons....see below
) If you have information on anyone, and can prove it with photos/clippings
etc., I will consider adding it to this history.
Oct. 1977 Lets start at the beginning of "Bridge Day" officially:
When the bridge
was finally opened in 1977, then Gov John D Rockefeller IV, invited
an open house. He had 2 of the 4 lanes of traffic blocked off so that
the states residents could walk out onto the deck and enjoy a view that
otherwise they would never be able to see while traveling 55 mph across
the bridge in their cars. This actually was the "Grand Opening"
ceremony and was never meant to be a regular event. For one thing,
it's technically illegal toclose off any
part of a roadway such as this. And even though the law was very
plain concerning this fact, enough people clamored for the event
that most every official looked the other way when it was decided that
Bridge Day would become a yearly event. Actually it was never
writtenin stone that there would BE a "Bridge
Day". It just managed to happen year to year somehow. Of
course when we finally got permission to legally jump the bridge,
then it was a matter of turning a relatively small affair into the monster
we know today. Every year it grew bigger, and hundreds of
thousands of dollars were being made for the vendors (who by now had
set-up) and the hotels/restaurants etc. However, due
to the fact that technically it's still unlawful to close the bridge,
this is the reason that we only have a 6 hour "window" to do our
thing. It's also the reason that Bridge Day never
became a 2 day event. Nothing would make the people of Fayette
County happier (not to mention the jumpers) than to have Bridge Day
over an entire weekend. And the way I see it, if the officials
can "look the other way" for one day...they can do it for two days right?
Well anyway, guess we're lucky to have the one day.
Now lets move on to the first recorded jumper.....
was the first man to ever jump off the New River Gorge Bridge.... Friday Aug 1st, 1979
in Cowen WV and was a coal mine foreman.
He made his first skydive in
74/75 at "Green County Sport Parachute Club" in Bidwell Ohio under the
direction of Jerry Nesbitt. Burton broke his leg and his wife
injured her back on their very first jump. Both were transported back
to CowenWV in a private ambulance
after a quick stop at the localhospital. Burton then made
some trips to Virginia (the New River Valley Parachute Club) and made
a total of about 25 jumps there. He also flew with my father (my
father being a pilot and living nearby) and jumped with my dad at NRVPC.
My dad was 60 atthe
time and the oldest person to static line at NRVPC.
Burtons jump numbers were only
in the high 30s when he decided to attempt a jump off the bridge.
Burton jumped a conventional North
American Aerodynamics Mini Rig System with a 32 foot Lopo canopy.
Due to the small number of jumps he was making each year, Burton
never hadreason to purchase one of those "new fangled" squares
(my words, not his) that had just comeon
the market. Besides, he trusted the round.
After much investigation, planning,
and a lot of phone calls to parachute companies, suppliers, and personal
jump friends, Burton decided that the jump COULD be made, but due to
swirling winds during the daytime, the jump would take place at dusk.
Long story short: Winds and the threat of rain postponed the jump
until around 10:15 that night. (about 45 minutes after dark)
in the "Richwood Leader"newspaper
Friday, August 17 at 10:20 p.m.
a crowd of over 200 spectators watched skyward as Burton Ervin, skydiver
from Cowen, made a daring parachute jump from the top of the 876-foot
height New River Gorge Bridge, the first such jump from the bridge over
the river, once called the "River of Death" by the Indians. From the
time the bridge was constructed, it became a challenge to Ervin. It
was a very tense time for all as he was assisted to the top of the bridge
by Leon Spencer of Craigsville with a four-foot ladder, a critical time
in the jump as he was getting set and stable. Bill Chambers of
Richwood stood on the ground under the bridge with a light to assist
Ervin in the jump. His parachute was specially packed by rigger Tinker
Hillman, who has made 1,500 successful jumps him self. The spectators,
which included state dignitaries, strained their eyes upward as the
parachutist came downward, descending to about 700 feet when the parachute
fully blossomed and the ratio was right for the safest place to land
was upriver from the bridge. The onlookers cheered as Ernie successfully
completed his amazing feat, landing in the water. His parachute
was recovered some time later. Special cars maneuvered at each end of
the bridge at the time the jump was made to prevent onto the bridge
and cause problems. Ervin had flown with Gerald Rader of Rader's
Flying Service (a locally famous flyer and manager of the Summersville
Airport) and other flyers over the bridge ( including my father) several
times, checking wind indicators and turbulence.
Calculations found August to
be the best time for the jump, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m.
as the air is heavier at night. Three previous attempts to make
the jump were foiled by the weather and had to be called off. Ervin
wore patriotic banners on his legs, with tributes to America and the
state of West Virginia. What seemed to be the impossible
has always been a challenge to Burton Ervin and he would seek for a
way to work it out and this jump was one of the "impossibles".
Several people had heard of
Burtons exploits by way of a short interview with WOAY TV in Fayetteville
WV. They came to visit Burton and
make a jump, which they did, almost a year to the day of Burtons. (Aug
1980). These included John Noak and Brad Smith of Springfield
Illinois and alsoBrian
Hinni of Florissant Missouri. Sad to say, Brad Smith killed himself
with a gunshot nottoo
long after Bridge Day 97.
Word soon gotto
Carl Boenish and Jean, who then brought along a group of base jumpers,
(Mike Millhorn of Indianapolis was one and Mike was the official keeper
of the NRGB numbers in the early days) They also met Burton
and stayed at his home, and thenmade a short base video. (if
anyone knows the day of this jump please mail me)
Now you must remember that we
had no internet back then and it
took quite a while for news to travel, mostly due to the secrecy of
those doing the jumping. Nobody knew what the law would do to them if
caught. All we knew here in WV was thatit HAD been
done and we wanted to do it, legally if possible.
Also during this time, a West
Virginia jumper named Greg Lawson made a jump within days of the others,
on Aug 21st 1980. Funny thing is, Greg had no idea that the other
jumpers had been here at about the same time. Gregs jump
was taped both by WOAY TV and a friend of mine named Dick Miller. Greg
had someone hold his pilot chute when he jumped.Greg
is a pilot today, and I own the original Sony video system that
was used to tape his jump.
team I belonged to at the time was hired to jump into our new governors
inauguration at the State Capitol. The leader of the team (Mig Fernandez)
asked the governor (Rockefeller) if we could jump the bridge the following
Bridge Day...and as they say, the rest is history. Keep in mind however
that Burton and others were also working behind the scenes topull this off.
That first legal Bridge Day
in 1981 included a jump from our clubs plane onto the deck of the bridge
by Mig & Ken Hamilton. Then Mig, Dennis Wood,
Andy Macintyre and Ken Hamilton became the first five to legally jump
the bridge on Saturday November 8th 1981.
State Police guarded the area
so the jumpers could pack, and then jump off the bridge. I was there also as a team member and spotter.
I hadn't received my oversized pilot chuteyet
however which precluded me from jumping with the team that day and so
I had towait a couple of weeks to jump.
I would jump a few weeks later all by myself. ( My jump was filmed
by two people, since video systems cost $3,500 then. I transfered
the film to video years later and I still have it)
By the next year there were
30 or so jumpers....the following year over 100. By 1984
there were about 350. I was Jean Boenish's liaison here in WV at that
time. Carl had been killed during a "That's Incredible" episode, and
so Jean took over and organized Bridge Day. I made the stairs that the
jumpers climbed each year (crude by today's standards) and was also
in charge of the jumpers transportation. These were the"good old
days" when you jumped whatever you normally jumped at the DZ.
In my case it was an everyday "Django Pegasus"... 220 SF 7 cell, the
"hottest" canopy on the market at the time, with Sprint pilot chute
that had parachute cord for a bridle back then.
The drivers I hired to haul
the jumpers back up, had old pickup trucks. Most were ok but a
few were very dangerous because they had "cattle racks" on them.
I had told both the drivers andthe jumpers
to NEVER overload these trucks and to sit down at all times. Well,
due to the fact that everyone wanted to get back up to the top ASAP....those
who rode in the trucks with thetall cattle
racks would stand up. Must havehad 25 to 30 jumpers in
those damned things. I followedbehind one truck and when
it took one of those hairpin curves, the entire side of the truck would
leave the ground placing the jumpers in the precarious position of being
on 2 wheels and ready to fall over a 500 foot mountain. Of course
they thought it was great fun!
I remember one time between
the first and second year of "legal" jumping off the bridge meand my teammates decided to jump the bridge on a day
that heavy rains had just ended. As we looked down upon the river, we
couldn't even find aplace to safely land. The river was SO high and
running SO hard that landing even near the edge meant certain
death.We spied a tiny spot near where the
ambulances park todayand even that had water standing. Then
it became the "Good old boy" complex: 'Hey!...I'll go if you go!"
OK...you go first!
Needless to say, we all went
and managed to survive.
I video taped the jumps in 1984 and
1985, including Ted Strongs Tandem jump. I had 26 jumps off the
bridge when it became so much red tape and work that I finally started
to slow down. Today, Bridge Day is so regulated (due to the National
Park Service) that much of the thrill is gone for many of the free spirits
who jumped whatever equipment they happened to jump at the drop zone,
and felt that anyone who wanted to jump off the bridge... should be
allowed to no matter the experience. Let's face it: This
is no carnival ride. And you're still a little crazy for doing
something like this. So who am I to tell you that you cant be
stupid? However... if you survive, you'll have stories to
tell for the rest of your life than no "average" man can ever
As a former member and friend of the
local media at the time (newspaper and radio) I fought to keep Bridge
Day both open to jumping AND free. The news media thought it was a terrible
idea for the state to allow this. The liability factor alone could bankrupt
the state they said. I spent hours having myobjections
published and calling radio and TV. I would send Jean Boenish
any updates pertaining to the "feel" of the lawmakers here. But finally
commercialism took control andthe locals heard the cash registers
ringing like never before.They then jumped on the bandwagon
to keep the jumpers, come hell or high water. And so its
been to this day.
SOME INTERESTING FACTS
The first person killed on bridge day jumping
from the bridge was Michael Glenn Williams, 25, from Birmingham Alabama.
Williams was a second lieutenant at Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota . His death was a drowning.
From my memory he had a slight hesitation and fired his round reserve
very quickly, then landed in the river and made no effort to get out of
his gear. I remember seeing him wave briefly, indicating that the landing wasn't
a problem, and that he was all right. He just stayed in his gear until
the current grabbed his reserve and pulled him under. There was only one
boat that year, and it was busy with other jumpers. As a result of
this death, extra boats were used for later years, and we were unwilling to release
a jumper from the bridge until we were sure there was a boat available
for rescue. This became a serious issue on several bridge days with high
water or wind when jumpers wanted to leap when the boats were full, but the
staff would not let them.
Ontario Canada, drowned after a jumpfrom the bridge in August 1986...It was a bandit
jumpnot on Bridge Day. Rick was unable to swim
evena single stroke, and had trouble just staying afloat.
Stanley apparently had a slow opening. He
was low man on a two-way jump and had a short canopy ride before landing in the rapids directly
below the bridge known as the “Zipper.” He was also taken
underneath the surface of the water and drowned.
of Paoli Pennsylvania was killed at 2:38 PM on October 10, 1987 (Bridge Day) when he towed
his36 inch pilot chute to impact. He pulled his reserve
just priorto impact but only received line stretch (from Baseline).
Gyrsting was making his third jump of the
day using a skydiving pilot chute and a skydiving bridle. It was reported that
jumpmasters questioned Gyrsting’s set-up, but he replied, “It’s
always worked before.”
Gyrsting then launched cleanly for a planned
three-second delay. He released the hand-held pilot and the bridle fully extended. However,
the pilot chute did not inflate. In videotape of the jump, the pilot
chute appeared inverted with the mesh side out.
Reports indicated Gyrsting pulled his reserve
ripcord handle around the fifth second of his freefall, but received only line stretch prior
to impact. That jump began the process whereby larger BASE pilot chutes
and longer BASE bridles became mandatory at Bridge Day.
After a 19 year safety record, Brian
Lee Schubert, 66, died of injuries in 2006 when his parachute opened too late. Brian was one of the first
"BASE" jumpers in modern times. History notes that: "One
day in the summer of 1966 Carl Boenish (Famous BASE jumper/filmmaker) hears a
weird story. A story that would change the course of his life. Two skydivers
from Barstow, California, Michael Pelky, an accountant, age
25 and Brian Schubert, a truck driver, age 26, decided to parachute off Yosemite's
El Capitan. They jumped side by side on a Sunday afternoon at around
5:00 PM and both did decent delays but did not track away from the wall.
Their round Paracommander canopies opened fine but the updrafts and swirling
winds pushed them back into the face and both repeatedly banged into
the wall on the way down. By the time they landed in the rocky talus below
both are pretty beaten up. Pelky has numerous abrasions and a broken
ankle. Schubert also had many abrasions plus a broken leg and broken foot.
Both were ambulanced to a local hospital. Brian was a retired police lieutenant
and an outdoor enthusiast at the time of his death.
In 1990 Tom
King and Vivian Taylor had a weddingon the bridge, then Tom jumped off.
In 1982, Ed
Cummings was the
first person to make astatic line jump off the new river bridge. His static
linewas 75 feet long to clear the super structure. After
thathe made 9 freefalls off bridge from 1982 until 1984.Later he became known for other things like beingtreasurer of U.S.P.A.
Mark Chamberlain and "Conrad
Freeman" made a
bungee jump attachedto
a pink elephant in 1984. "Conrad" was actually Martin Lyster(now Dr. Martin Lyster) He was, at that time,
a member of the DangerousSports Club,
which invented and pioneered bungee jumping in 1979, in England.To pay for the trip. Martin arranged with a TV company
that they could film abungee jump from
the bridge and in return they would pay for the expedition.Mark bungee jumped first (without the elephant) and
a base jumper wentsimultaneously, so
there was no hiatus in base jumping for that. When Martinbungee jumped, there was only the shortest of interruptions
(literally, a minute orso) and
once he settled on the end of the rope, base jumpers carried onjumping (he was able to chat to them, as they opened
just above ). So hedidn't cause
any real annoyance or disturbance to the base jumping.(It was the guy from New Zealand making bungee jumps,
years later thatdid
interrupt the base jumping for some time, which pissed off and rightfullyso, the base jumpers.) The bridge was
around Martins tenth base jumpand he
continued base jumping up to his last one in 1996 from El Capitan
Freeman" Lyster now lives in Oxford,
THE BUNGEE INCIDENT
"incident" I remember in 1989 is some kid who wanted to bungee, but
took-up so much time doing it that it pissed everyone off, (as
they had to stop until he was hauled back up.) I have some video of
this.He had set-up a truck with the real wheel removed and a hoist drum
affair attached. He strutted around (mostly scared it appeared)
as the crowd waited for him to make up his mind. Finally, he stood on
the platform/railing for even more time... ( it appeared he was
stalling ) Finally, he jumped. I don't remember there being anything
unusual about the jump, except that the hoist took forever to
bring him back up to the top. By then, much jump time had been lost and
we swore we'd never allow something like that to eat-up our precious 6
hour time limit again.
In 1983 the
Beckley Newspaper reported 40,000 spectators and 242 jumpers.
In 1984 The Register Herald
reported 100,000 spectators and 200 jumpers. Jump Magazine reported 248 registered jumpers.
In 1985 The Charleston Gazette
reported 350 jumpers and 100,000 spectators. The Register Herald reported 100,000 spectators based on police estimates. Jump Magazine reported 448 registered jumpers.
In 1986 The Register Herald
reported 200,000 spectators, based on police estimates. The Register Herald also reported 383 jumpers. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported 392 jumpers. Baseline and Jump Magazine reported 405 jumpers.
In 1987 Baseline reported
275 registered jumpers. 200 were pre registered, 25 Friday registrations
and 50 Saturday registrations. Registration fee was 20.00
In 1988 the Gazette Mail reported
150,000 spectators according to an NPS estimate, and more than 300 jumpers. Baseline reported more than 300 jumpers.
In 1989 the water level was
very high and wind was a problem The event was all but canceled. A few hardy souls did jump, but there were no published estimates available.
In 1990 the Register Herald
reported more than 300 jumpers and more than 100,000 spectators.
2001 was the first time that
Bridge Day was canceled due to the events in New York of Sept 11.
876 ft. 3030 ft. 1700 ft. 360 ft. $37,000,000 $33,984,000 88,000,000 lbs. 44,000,000 lbs. 44,000,000 lbs. 184,000 lbs. 21,066,000 lbs.
69-1/3 ft June, 1974 Oct, 1977
As I remember and also gather
more information,I will try to update this page as much as possible. I hope this has been of some
interest, as we mustnever forget how "Great" events get started. If you have something to add...mail
me or justclick on the message board below to leave a thought.