BASE Jumper Deadly Accident

This video still shows BASE jumper James E. Hickey before jumping from the Perrine Memorial Bridge on May 7.

(COURTESY PHOTO)

TWIN FALLS | The sheriff's office will not recommend felony charges in a fiery stunt that killed a 73-year-old BASE jumper last month.

"I don't think anyone is going to say that someone did something intentionally to cause the death," Twin Falls County Sheriff Tom Carter said Thursday.

James E. Hickey of Claremont, Calif., died May 7 while performing what skydivers call a "burning parachute cutaway" jump from the Perrine Bridge.

Hickey had successfully performed the stunt several times from an airplane, said his friend Tom Aiello. Properly done, the jumper disconnects the burning chute and deploys a second chute that carries him to safety.

An experienced skydiver and BASE jumper, Hickey stood that day on the ledge of the bridge — 500 feet above the Snake River — as he had hundreds of times before. With his experience, "Jim was the world expert on this jump," said Aiello, who admitted days after the fatal stunt that he set Hickey's chute on fire.

Several weeks later, Carter received an anonymous letter, apparently written by members of the BASE-jumping community, insisting Aiello be charged in Hickey's death.

Aiello "should be charged at least with reckless endangerment..." said the letter, which also was posted on Craigslist and sent to the Times-News.

"I'm taking (the letter) as serious as I can, but I don't think the writer is aware of the laws of this state," Carter said. The stunt "was an incredibly stupid thing to do, but there was no criminal activity. " 

The sheriff's office's investigation should wrap up soon, and the report will be sent to Prosecutor Grant Loebs, he said. Whether anyone is charged with a crime is ultimately up to the prosecutor.

Hickey was determined to perform the stunt, but had trouble executing it, said Aiello, who runs a BASE jumping academy in Twin Falls. Hickey jumped four or five times in the hours before his fatal fall, but was unable to set his own chute on fire.

Hickey enlisted the help of several friends on the bridge, Aiello said. After Hickey climbed over the rail, one friend dropped the unpacked chute beside him.

"Jim wanted to light the chute himself," Aiello said. "He used different ignition systems" to drop a flaming tennis ball on the chute. "But the chute failed to ignite each time."

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"Jim was getting frustrated. He didn't have enough hands to hang on to the rail, light the ball and drop it on the chute," he said.

Hickey then asked Aiello to light the chute. Aiello struck a match and the chute — which had been soaked in accelerant — went up in a ball of fire and Hickey fell to his death.

After gathering initial witness statements, the sheriff's office reported that Hickey's chute simply failed to open.

By the time he reached the dock at Centennial Park, Aiello said, most of Hickey's gear had been removed from the boat that recovered the body.

"I called 911," he said.

Those at the scene were "less than forthcoming," Carter confirmed. "I think they were concerned that they would get in trouble."

"It was a stressful situation," Aiello said. "I shouldn't have gone along with them, but I did. After I thought about it, I wrote up an incident report and posted it online to make it public."

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