Brian Lee Schubert, 66, died of injuries suffered when he hit the water 876 feet below the New River Gorge Bridge during the annual Bridge Day festival on Saturday, said Fayette County Sheriff Bill Laird.
Schubert, of Alta Loma, Calif., had been well known in the sport of BASE jumping since 1966, when he and a friend became the first people to jump from El Capitan, a nearly 3,000-foot-tall rock formation, in California's Yosemite National Park.
The sport's acronym stands for the places jumpers usually leap from: buildings, antennae, spans and earth.
Schubert retired from the Pomona, Calif., police department in 1989.
"He was a well-respected lieutenant here for a number of years," Lt. Mark Warm told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin of Ontario, Calif. "He retired and started his own private investigation business."
Schubert was always willing to help his friends get started in outdoor activities, Warm recalled, adding that the men had recently discussed going fishing together sometime in the future.
Thousands of people witnessed the jump.
Lew Whitener, a newspaper photographer covering the annual Bridge Day festival for the Register-Herald of Beckley, said it appeared Schubert's chute didn't start to open until he was about 25 feet above the water. The crowd gave a collective gasp, he said.
"It was everybody kind of held their breath then an eerie silence afterward. Everybody kind of looked at each other and said 'Wow,'" Whitener said.
A large rock obscured the crowd's view of the man's body hitting the water, Whitener said.
The fatality is the first since 1987 at Bridge Day, which typically draws an estimated 100,000 spectators and about 400 parachutists to the southern part of the state.
For one day a year, the National Park Service allows people to parachute off the world's second largest single-span bridge to the river below. The bridge, a well-known icon in West Virginia, is featured on the back of the state's quarter.
To qualify to jump off the bridge, applicants must have skydived at least 50 times.
Jumping at the festival continued after Schubert's body was recovered and taken to a funeral home. Laird said officials allowed it because weather didn't appear to be a factor in the accident. There were 804 separate jumps Saturday, officials said.
"No measurable winds or anything would appear to have contributed to adverse conditions making this any more dangerous than base jumping would ordinarily be," Laird said.
Mathis Reimann, who jumped within an hour after the accident, said Schubert's death made him think about safety.
"It's a dangerous sport and makes it clear that you really have to be careful," said Reimann, who lives in Michigan.
Since 1981, there have been at least 100 BASE jump fatalities around the world, according to the World BASE Fatality List, a Web site maintained by a BASE jumper.