TWIN FALLS • After a 73-year-old BASE jumper died earlier this month while attempting a dangerous stunt from the Perrine Bridge, many are questioning why the sport is still legal.
BASE jumping has come under increased scrutiny as at least five people have died in accidents since January, including two last week at Yosemite National Park.
The acronym “BASE” stands for building, antenna, span and earth, the types of places from which jumpers leap. It’s illegal in many places but allowed year-round without a permit at the Perrine Bridge.
According to a fatality list compiled by BLiNC, a website devoted to base jumping, 256 BASE jumpers have died since the sport was popularized in the early 1980s — and half of them happened in the past seven years.
The May 7 accident was the second BASE jumping fatality at the Perrine Bridge this year. Bryan Turner, 32, of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, died March 10 when his chute failed to open.
Right to Die
Idaho has been called a “right-to-die” state.
No, suicide isn’t legal in Idaho. But folks here have the right to do things others might consider crazy, such as riding a motorcycle without a helmet or BASE jumping from the Perrine Bridge.
“I’d prefer to call Idaho a ‘right-to-live’ state,” said Tom Aiello, owner of Snake River BASE Academy in Twin Falls. “It’s a right-to-live state where people are free to live according to their own dreams.”
Aiello watched from the bridge as BASE jumper James E. Hickey, the 73-year-old jumper, fell nearly 500 feet to his death in a ball of fire.
“Jim was an experienced jumper,” he said. “It was a very complex jump.”
Hickey spent four days planning the jump, Aeillo said, and had written 60 pages of notes before the jump. His plan was to leap from the bridge while another person set his parachute on fire. Hickey of Claremont, Calif., planned to disconnect the parachute after a few moments and open a second chute, which would have carried him to the ground.
Instead, a fireball erupted and Hickey plummeted, apparently engulfed in flames.
Aiello said he was not involved in planning or executing the jump, although he is a BASE-jump instructor and knew Hickey.
One of Hickey’s friends jumped seconds after him and landed safely. A third person jumped after people on a boat pulled Hickey out of the river, picked up the second jumper and headed downstream to the dock at Centennial Park, according to witness Chris Gallas of Grapevine, Texas, who videoed the jump from the Jerome County side.
Gallas told the Times-News he saw something on fire while Hickey was still standing on the rail. He didn’t realize what was happening at first.
Gallas and co-worker Skip Merryman watched news reports later that night in Boise, before flying back to Texas. None of the reports mentioned flames.
Suspecting some kind of a cover-up, Gallas and Merryman phoned the sheriff’s office.
“I believe we know the name of the person who lit the fire,” said Capt. Brent Hilliard of the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office. “This was a planned stunt and it went wrong. Nothing we’ve seen indicated foul play.”
Aiello said no one told the sheriff’s office about the chute being on fire, because they knew Hickey wouldn’t have wanted “to create a fuss.”
Responsibility to be Safe
Danny Crafton, a retired Twin Falls police sergeant, was “dead against BASE jumping” when the sport came to town and “felt it endangers people and emergency personnel needlessly.
“When I see a death from BASE jumping,” Crafton said, “it saddens me for the loss of life and that our valley furnished a tool for someone to kill themselves.”
One reason BASE jumping is not illegal, he said, is the inability to enforce laws against the risky sport.
Nathan Jerke, spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department, agrees with Crafton, but says there’s more to the story.
The Perrine Bridge is owned by the state — not Twin Falls and not Twin Falls County.
“State legislators have not given the Transportation Department statutory authority to regulate recreational activities like BASE jumping,” Jerke said. “Some states’ legislators have made laws to regulate those activities. Our state has not.”
While BASE jumping is inherently risky, so are other sports, said Shawn Barigar, president and CEO of the Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. People die while skiing, white-water rafting and rock climbing.
“But no one ever calls and asks when we are going to ban skiing,” Barigar said Friday.
Still, “I think that BASE jumpers have a responsibility to be as safe as possible,” he said.
Barigar did a tandem BASE jump from the bridge three years ago.
"There’s certainly a thrill to it, like bungee jumping or riding a big roller coaster,” he said. “Those who participate are thrill seekers.”
It’s an extreme sport, and those who participate are trained athletes, he said.
But not all jumpers know what they are doing, Crafton said. “I cringe seeing the EMT’s going down after a hung-up chute.”
Crafton’s been there during his years in law enforcement. Often, the city police were the first to respond to an emergency in the canyon.
“We did a lot of rappelling,” he said, “and it’s a hell of a risk.”
To keep the sport in perspective, Barigar quotes statistics.
“In the grand scheme of things, less than 1 percent of the jumps need an emergency response,” he said.
“It’s an attraction for two audiences. The bridge is the only man-made structure where BASE jumping is allowed without a permit and it draws a huge BASE-jumper crowd every year.
“It’s also an incredible spectator sport,” he said.