Parachutist Plunges To Death

A veteran parachutist plunged to her death off one of this park's most spectacular granite monoliths during a protest intended to show that such jumps can be done safely.

Jan Davis, 60, was one of five jumpers who planned to leap from the top of 3,200-foot El Capitan in the Friday protest, organized in response to the June 9 death of a man who parachuted off the same peak, only to drown in the river below while fleeing park rangers.

Davis, the fourth jumper, hit a pile of rocks at the base of El Capitan after her parachute failed to open. Davis fell for 20 seconds; the first jumper took about four minutes to float down into Yosemite Valley.

Witnesses said her husband, photographer Tom Sanders, who was shooting the jump, slumped onto his camera in grief after watching her fall around 2 p.m.

"If only she had used her own gear; if she had only had her own gear," he said repeatedly, according to friends.

Davis was using borrowed gear because she didn't want hers to be confiscated by rangers waiting to arrest her on the valley floor, witnesses said.

The borrowed parachute and gear had a rip cord on the leg, unlike her usual gear where the cord was on her back, Sanders told friends.

"She was the fourth jumper, the first three were beautiful. And then she jumped. Everybody thought it was okay and then people said 'Open up! Open up!' Then ... the whole place turned quiet," said Paul Sakuma, an Associated Press photographer.

Mick Knutson was arrested after he parachuted in Yosemite National Park. Skydiver Jan Davis died a few minutes later.

A veteran with more than 70 jumps over the past 16 years, Davis claimed to be the first woman to jump from Angel Falls in Venezuela, the highest waterfall in the world. She also worked closely with her husband, who has done skydiving sequences for James Bond movies.

The extreme sport of jumping from fixed objects like cliffs or buildings is so dangerous that the National Park Service has banned such stunts. Nationwide, an estimated 21 people have died during so-called BASE jumps - the acronym for buildings, antennae, spans and earth - in the last 20 years.

BASE jumping was legal in the park for a trial period in 1980, but restrictions on when people could jump and the number of jumps per day were routinely violated, so the activity was banned.

"This is the sixth death since 1980 due to BASE jumping in the park, and we've had numerous injuries. It's a poor track record," park spokesman Scott Gediman said.

In the past, rangers have arrested anyone caught jumping off El Capitan and other cliffs, seized their equipmet and put them in the local jail. Fines run as high as $2,000.

Both sides have tried to find middle ground on the issue after rangers who staked out a landing area tried to capture Frank Gambalie III in June. Gambalie, 28, tried to flee, and drowned in the runoff-swollen Merced River.

Friday, Gambalie's mother joined about 150 people, including the five jumpers' families and friends, in what was supposed to be a carefully staged demonstration.

The parachutists, accompanied by rangers at the top of the peak, agreed to land in a designated area, be arrested and forfeit their equipment, then pursue their opposition to the ban in court.

"She was one of my heroes," said Chris Conkright, a photographer who worked with Davis' husband. "She died doing what she loved to do."