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Popping wheelies in the sky at Bridge Day (with video)

By Megan Workman

View a larger version of the video here.

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- With a parachute on his back, Lonnie Bissonnette rolled his wheelchair off the 876-foot New River Gorge Bridge and floated in the air for a few seconds until he landed safely on the ground below.

A half hour before his leap, Erika and Patrick Steiner -- surrounded by supportive strangers -- said their "I dos" and then made their second big leap of the day.

And although he was scared to jump a second year in a row, Donald Cripps, 83, of Florida, was the oldest BASE jumper at West Virginia's 33rd annual Bridge Day celebration. It's the only day of the year that people are allowed to legally jump from the world's second-longest single-arch bridge.

About 450 people took part in 1,036 jumps during the largest extreme sports event in the world in Saturday's chilly, cloudy weather.

Many jumpers wore kneepads, hiking shoes and helmets with video cameras. People wore bright, colorful outfits and a couple of people jumped in their American-flag shorts.

BASE jumping -- an acronym for the four categories of fixed objects for jumpers: building, antenna, span and earth -- during Bridge Day is exciting because it brings people together who have the same interests, Bissonnette said.

"I love Bridge Day because we get to see jumpers from all over the world. It's a family reunion here, and I enjoy catching up with everyone," Bissonnette, 47, said.

Bissonnette was the only person to fall through the sky in a wheelchair Saturday. The Canadian -- who has been to 16 Bridge Days -- also made the jump in his wheelchair in 2010, he said.

Bissonnette was injured in July 2004 while attempting a quadruple gainer (an outward facing, inward rotating flip) on his 1100th BASE jump off a 486-foot-tall bridge. The lines of his parachute tangled around his foot, not allowing his parachute to fully open during the fall.

That hasn't stopped the extreme athlete, who most recently jumped off the world's highest tunnel-to-tunnel suspension bridge, in China.

"It's very fulfilling to be able to continue to come back here to jump," Bissonnette said before he jumped. "I know I'm tense and nervous, but the tension from [spectators] is unbelievable."

More than 100,000 people crowded the New River Gorge Bridge and surrounding area.

The West Virginia State Police closed the bridge to regular traffic and rerouted it onto U.S. 19.

Some people leaned over the side of the bridge to get a better look at the colorful parachutes as they got smaller and smaller the closer they reached the ground. Others snacked on homemade pies, large turkey legs and aromatic kettle popcorn as they walked by around 100 vendors of all sorts.

Daredevils did back flips and handstands off the platform in the middle of the bridge. To the right of that stand, a few jumpers lunged from a bouncy diving board into the sky.

For the first time ever, to the left of the platform, others were tossed from a pneumatically operated steel catapult as the crowd cheered in awe. The catapult flung BASE jumpers 50 feet laterally and 20 feet vertically off the deck of the bridge. Jason Bell, who heads Vertical Visions, a Bridgeport-based firm that coordinates Bridge Day jumping activities, designed the catapult.

A father and son jumped after first-timers and frightened thrill-seekers. By 11:15 a.m., every jumper had taken a fly in the sky at least once, and adventurers went back for more.

Once was enough for Erika Steiner, who not only got married on top the bridge Saturday but also won the Bridge Day 2012 Tandem BASE Jump Contest. Steiner, 27, from Lockport, N.Y., got to jump for free and had $1,000 donated to Mental Health America, the charity of her choice.

Although it Steiner's idea to have a Bridge Day wedding, her 24-year-old groom, Patrick, said he was on board from the beginning. The two wore matching bride and groom hoodies for their wedding jump.

"Originally, we played with the idea of having a sky-diving wedding," Patrick Steiner said, "but ... we moved it up to have it as soon as we could, so Bridge Day was be the next best idea."

Subaru, one of the event's sponsors, bought the Steiners a cake with mini parachutes on it and provided a banner for all the jumpers to sign for the newlyweds.

Although a Bridge Day wedding isn't the traditional kind of wedding, Patrick Steiner said it was perfect for the easy-going pair.

"The last few months, we've been to quite a few weddings and the common theme in planning their wedding is that it was extremely stressful," Patrick Steiner said. "Although this wedding is stressful at times, it's been easier. We wanted something carefree and enjoyable to start our lives together, and this has given it to us."

No major injuries were reported Saturday, but three people were transported to area hospitals with minor injuries.

To learn more about Bridge Day visit http://www.officialbridgeday.com.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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