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Parachutist Dies in Fall at Yosemite's El Capitan

Tragedy: A Santa Barbara woman, 60, leaps from the cliff in protest of a National Park Service ban on such jumps. Chute fails to open as husband watches.

October 23, 1999|From Associated Press

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — A parachutist plunged to her death off Yosemite's most forbidding peak Friday during a protest of park rules banning such jumps.

Jan Davis, a 60-year-old Santa Barbara resident, was the fourth of five jumpers in the protest, which was organized in response to the June 9 drowning death of a jumper who successfully parachuted off El Capitan, only to drown in the river below while trying to flee rangers.

"The first three were beautiful. And then she jumped. Everybody thought it was OK, and then people said, 'Open up! Open up!' said Paul Sakuma, an Associated Press photographer.

Davis fell to the base of 3,200-foot El Capitan, and rangers quickly cordoned off the area. Davis' husband, photographer Tom Sanders, who was among the spectators, slumped onto his camera in grief after she fell.

The danger of the extreme sport of jumping off buildings, antennas, spans and cliffs has led the National Park Service to ban such jumps. Nationwide, an estimated 21 people have died jumping that way in the last 20 years.

Rangers have arrested anyone caught jumping off El Capitan, seized their equipment and put them in the local jail.

Davis was jumping with borrowed gear because she did not want her own to be confiscated by the park rangers waiting to arrest her on the valley floor, witnesses said.

"If only she had used her own gear. If she had only had her own gear," Sanders said over and over again, according to friends who tried to console him. Sanders told them that Davis usually pulls a cord on her back; on the borrowed jumpsuit, the cord was on her leg.

Also, since BASE jumpers do not have time to open a second chute from such low altitudes, she had no backup, said Chris Conkright, an employee of Aerial Focus, the Santa Barbara-based aerial cinematography company she and her husband ran.

"This wouldn't have been her first choice on gear," Conkright said. "This was her first choice on gear that you would surrender to the rangers."

Park rangers and parachutists have tried to reach an accommodation after rangers who staked out a landing area on an informant's tip tried to capture Frank Gambalie III on June 9. Gambalie tried to flee and drowned in the 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 that such jumps can be made safely.

"They agreed ahead of time to land in a designated area, allow themselves to be arrested, forfeit their equipment. We give them a citation for illegal air delivery and the U.S. magistrate sets the fine, traditionally about $2,000," said Scott Gediman, a park spokesman.

The earlier jumps, under a beautiful blue sky, were flawless, according to Riccarda Mescola, Gambalie's mother, who was on the phone with the AP when Davis' chute failed to open.

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