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Not afraid to take a leap

October 03, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. - Build it, and they will jump. Really.

Hundreds of people plan to leap off the 876-foot-high New River Gorge Bridge on Saturday, Oct. 16.

Others will rappel or slide down ropes, and tens of thousands are expected to walk across the 3,030-foot span.

The third Saturday in October will mark the 25th year the longest steel-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere has been closed to traffic and open to adventure on Bridge Day.

BASE jumpers and as many as 200,000 spectators are expected to attend the 2004 installment of the event. BASE stands for the four categories of objects from which jumpers leap - buildings, antennas, spans (the word used for a bridge) and earth (the word used for a cliff).

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Most will fall for a few seconds before pulling the cords on their parachutes and floating the distance of two Statues of Liberty and the Washington Monument stacked together to the landing zone at the water's edge.

The $37 million New River Gorge bridge opened to traffic in 1977, ending a 45-minute commute on narrow roads from one side of the gorge to the other.

Gussie and Howard Mills, who retired to Shepherdstown, W.Va., four years ago, walked the bridge at the first Bridge Day in 1980. They had driven six or seven hours from their home in Indianapolis. The bridge had held their interest since they saw it under construction in the 1970s. It took three years to build. Gussie Mills called the bridge, "a not-to-be-missed, record-setting engineering and construction feat," and the couple earned certificates for walking it a few times.

Some people hang back from the side, Gussie Mills said, but she likes to lean over and look down at the river below.

Several teams of seasoned qualified rappellers - chosen by lottery in June - will be ascending and/or descending fixed ropes from the catwalk underneath the bridge. After some orientation, anybody can ride a "high line, "sliding down a 700-foot rope rigged from the bridge's catwalk to the road below.

Craft, food and souvenir vendors will be at both ends of the bridge for the Bridge Day festival.

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