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Legendary Jumper Dies in Fall at Bridge

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Over the weekend there was a tragedy at the annual Bridge Day Jump off West Virginia's New River Gorge Bridge. A pioneer of the extreme sport called base-jumping died when his parachute didn't fully open during his jump, 876 feet off the bridge. Brian Schubert was 66-years-old and now there's investigations into his death.

NPR's Noah Adams was at Bridge Day on Saturday and Noah, you were there to do a, just a light feature story and then it took this terrible turn.

NOAH ADAMS: You bet. I was there on assignment for the NPR program DAY TO DAY. Gonna have a great weekend. I've been to Bridge Day before. The sun was out. People are very happy. More than one hundred thousand people come to watch 400 jumpers. It's just a wonderful thing, and then as we got up close to noon we had this happen with Brian Schubert who was a returning pioneer star. He had jumped off El Capitan along with Mike Pelge(ph) in 1966 and that was the beginning of base jumping, and everybody gives them that credit, even though they've been forgotten for a few years.

BLOCK: And as it happened, you talked to Brian Schubert very soon before he took this jump.

ADAMS: Right. And I walked up to him. I figured this had to be Mike or Brian and it was Brian and he was beaming. He's 66-years-old. He'd been a bit over weight, you could tell. Gray hair. But boy he sure did look like he was having fun. And I asked about the El Capitan jump and he told me what that jump was like. He said he had 12 seconds of free fall.

Mr. BRIAN SCHUBERT: And that's after getting stable and tumbling. Just looking out at the valley and watching the beauty of Yosemite when you're coming from the top down is incredible.

ADAMS: Great to hear that because a lot of times you hear about this sport and it's just so radical and extreme and people are going for the adrenaline rush. A lot of people do talk about the beauty of it.

BLOCK: That jump 40 years ago in Yosemite, but did you talk to him, Noah, about what he was expecting in the jump this weekend in West Virginia.

ADAMS: Sure. I asked him about it and here's what he said, and we'll talk about the reality of it after we hear this.

ADAMS: How is it going to be jumping here for you?

Mr. SCHUBERT: Great. I'm looking forward to it. It's a different kind of canopy but I've been trained by the best. Yeah, thanks. You bet. Anytime.

BLOCK: I've been trained by the best. A lot of questions being asked, Noah, about that training. The Los Angeles Times is saying that this was actually his first jump in 40 years and that he only had one day of practice, Brian Schubert did, before this jump on Saturday.

ADAMS: He had a lot of advice, really, but I learned he was resistant to actual training. He wasn't familiar with the modern sport parachute. He was used to the round kind of parachute and was a little overconfident and a little stubborn. So what happened in the jump was that there's a small pilot chute that the jumpers hold above their head. They release that after they jump. It pulls out the big canopy and he simply failed to release that, and Mike Pelge who jumped El Capitan with him and was there said to the L.A. Times why Brian didn't open is such a total unknown and that's what happened. He didn't open.

BLOCK: Noah, what it was like, when something goes so terribly wrong at this event, what it is like there?

ADAMS: I was just watching and feeling the emotion roll through this crowd. Among the people who knew, who could tell what had happen, who knew right away that he must be dead, who saw the impact in the water and it affected everybody physically. My heart rate went up just being close to that scene.

Mike Pelge, his parachuting buddy was suppose to jump afterwards - he didn't. He went away and the jumping was stopped for 40 minutes, but then they went on and Bridge Day continued. Many people didn't know that anything had happened. Many of the jumpers didn't know that there had been a death.

BLOCK: It's amazing to think about, Noah, that this event would go on. A man has just died in the water doing exactly this and things go on as planned.

ADAMS: People planned to come to Bridge Day Festival to jump every year. They've come from a long way, they want to jump. They would always say well, he would have wanted it that way. You always hear that in interviews and they continued to jump. There were 800 total jumps that day and there hadn't been a fatality at Bridge Day since 1987, so this was just a very, very rare thing.

BLOCK: And now investigations into what happened. What will they be looking at?

ADAMS: They'll be looking at his equipment to see if indeed it was a malfunction and his physical condition to see if perhaps he had a heart attack. Maybe he had a stroke, maybe he blanked out. And they'll be talking to the eye witnesses who were on the river in the rescue boats below watching him fall.

BLOCK: Is there any talk about tightening the standards for people who are allowed to jump on Bridge Day?

ADAMS: I haven't heard that. To make a base jump you have to have at least 50 skydives, and that's quite a bit, and you go through rigorous training and gear checking and that sort of thing, but people have to be asking shouldn't Brian Shubert have been better trained? Shouldn't he have been in better shape? Shouldn't you have made sure he was going to be able to do it?

BLOCK: Okay, Noah. Thanks very much.

ADAMS: You're welcome.

BLOCK: NPR's Noah Adams and you can hear his full interview with Brian Shubert on top of the New River Gorge Bridge at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.