Maybe it’s all about having good guardian angels.
Or perhaps it is due to not being afraid of heights.
But way before the crowds, Jerry Waters jumped off the New River Gorge Bridge.
And he didn’t stop.
Today he’s alive and well, loves to talk about those adventures.
“I definitely have a good sense of balance. And heights never bothered me,” he said.
Growing up in Charleston, he had plenty of adventures including scaling a sandstone wall created by a quarry and jumping on/off moving railroad cars.
That’s a far cry, however, from his more recent death-defying activities in Fayetteville.
He first ventured out on the beams before the famous steel arch bridge was completed in October 1977.
People still can’t believe their eyes, even after seeing photos posted on his mywvhome Facebook page.
It’s eye opening, especially since it’s 876 feet down to the New River.
“I took this picture on a cold Sunday morning by setting the timer on my camera…then running down the beam, turning around and walking back when the shutter fired,” he said.
Another close-up photo of his feet on the narrow beam also shows there is no safety net where he is standing.
“It was just about in the middle of the bridge. As a matter of fact by that time it may have been the middle, because they may have put that last section in there.
“I was on a beam that was maybe 12 inches wide. And since there was no net, if you slipped it was just goodbye Charlie.”
He was 28 years old then, worked as a fulltime Charleston firefighter and part-time photographer for the Charleston Daily Mail newspaper.
Excitement has always been more important to him than fear.
One thing often led to another adventure. For example, a fellow firefighter inspired him to take a parachuting class.
“My very first jump out of the plane, it was like I belonged there. I felt one with the sky.
When I got out of the plane, got under the parachute and landed, my whole life changed. That first one did it for me, and I spent the next 35 years jumping.”
His experience now includes a total of about 2,800 jumps.
“I never felt better than when I was in the air.”
He was part of a skydiving team that first was hired to jump at Gov. Jay Rockefeller’s inauguration.
At that time, another member successfully asked for permission to jump there. Rockefeller agreed and even helped with logistical needs, he said.
In 1980, two lanes were blocked off so people could walk onto the bridge deck and enjoy a view that wasn’t possible while crossing it in a vehicle.
Two parachutists jumped from a plane onto the bridge. Five parachutists jumped from the bridge into the gorge. And more than 5,500 certificates were given to people taking the 3,000-foot walk across the iconic structure.
That was the beginning of the annual Bridge Day event, and nearly four decades later it is still the state’s largest one-day festival.
Held the third Saturday in October, it’s hosted by the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce.
Saturday’s event is expected to attract thousands of people.
It’s still all about watching BASE jumpers parachute from the bridge, enjoying the view into the gorge and visiting vendors offering everything from arts and crafts to refreshments.
Many folks come year after year, and enjoy reminiscing about their trips to the world-famous bridge.
Some recall family members, steelworkers who were part of its construction.
Waters, who was one of the early organizers, continued to help with it for several years.
“I made the little set of steps that was used every year, carried it up there from my house in Charleston and that’s what everyone walked up to jump off the bridge.”
He’s jumped approximately two dozen times during the event, and appreciates what is involved in a safe jump, including vastly improved equipment.
“Since I made my first jump from the bridge by myself, with no one other than my girlfriend there, having a crowd at Bridge Day made it extra fun. There’s no explaining how it feels when thousands of people are watching you jump.”
In the early days, the equipment was designed for skydiving.
“Basically we were using death traps because they weren’t designed for BASE jumping. Typically the types of parachutes we were using then took 800 feet to open at terminal velocity which is about 124 miles per hour.
So it took it 800 feet to get you open, slowed down and stopped. But you’ve only got 876 feet off the bridge.”
Jumpers only had 8 ½ seconds after leaving the bridge before touching down below, so it is vital the parachute open quickly, he said.
“It takes about three seconds to clear the bottom of the bridge, and you don’t want to open until you clear that part of the structure. Then you have just 5 ½ seconds left to do something,” he said.
The new gear is designed to accommodate these BASE jumping conditions, and is safer since it will open in as little as 100 feet.
Success breeds success, but it can never be taken for granted.
There was always something special between him and the New River Gorge Bridge.
“This bridge has always been an adrenaline rush because there’s nothing mundane about jumping off there.
Every single time it is a huge rush. And you are scared, regardless of what anybody says.
Because when you stand on the edge of that bridge, you know in the back of your mind that you have a 50/50 chance. The odds are probably better than that, but in the end that parachute is either going to open or it’s not.”
He will never forget looking down, knowing that was his final destination.
“There’s an old saying about height being your friend. So if you’re at 12,000 feet in an airplane, who cares?
But when you are at 876 feet, and you can see the bottom as clear as day that is a rush. You just power through it, knowing that you can’t let the thousands of people down who are waiting to see you jump.”
Bridge Day has helped shine a positive spotlight on the state across the globe, he said.