Funeral of the man who fell to earth

Author: By Jonathan Thompson

A veteran of 250 Base jumps over eight years, he had twice suffered serious injury. The third time, his luck finally ran out.

Dozens of British Base jumpers descended on the tiny Oxfordshire village of Fringford yesterday to honour 38-year-old Richards, a father of one, who died at the 300ft Baells dam, near Barcelona, last month.

Base-jumping websites have been inundated with tributes from around the world for Richards, who had done so much to raise the profile of the sport.

One close friend and fellow jumper told The Independent on Sunday: “He showed everyone that it is not illegal; that we’re not all nutters; and that there is a method and an application to all of this.”

Base is an acronym from the fixed objects that participants choose to launch themselves from: a building, antenna (for example, uninhabited tower such as an aerial mast), span (a bridge, arch or dome), and earth (a cliff or other natural formation). The jumpers use parachutes, but they wait until the last possible moment to deploy them.

Although not illegal in itself in this country, jumpers are often prosecuted for a number of peripheral offences. This can include reckless endangerment, public disorder, breach of the peace and trespass. There are thought to be about 150 jumpers in the UK, but a large number of them are not continuously “live”, or active.

Richards’s girlfriend of seven years, Vickie Andrews, led the tributes yesterday, as guests – all wearing brightly coloured clothes – entered the parish church of St Michael and All Angels to the sound of a DJ playing thumping House music.

“Base jumping was Sean’s first love – it was at the very top of his list of priorities, even above me,” said Ms Andrews. “He always said that whatever was going on in your life, whatever you were worried about, as soon as you were on that edge you were completely focussed and all your troubles vanished. It was perfect freedom and he would never have given it up. I was with him right up to the end, and that is what mattered. He died doing what he loved, and loving me.”

Richards, formerly in the Army and Royal Air Force, was fatally injured after his parachute failed to open properly and he was flung into the side of the dam, before falling 80ft on to railings below. Although he regained consciousness for 40 minutes after the accident, he died of internal bleeding on the way to hospital.

Richards’s first “strike” – at Beachy Head in July 2001 – involved him shattering a leg, while on the second – on Baffin Island in the Arctic two years later – he nearly froze to death when he became stranded on an ice shelf at -25C.

In the years since Richards took it up, Base jumping has benefited from a higher profile, featuring in a number of local and national newspaper articles, TV programmes and big budget advertisements. Last year, in the UK’s first major Base festival in Bedford, a crowd of around 250,000 watched as 25 jumpers notched up more than 150 descents from a 300ft crane.

George Churchill, a close friend of Richards and the last person to jump with him before the accident, said he was now considering giving up the sport. “We’re all aware of the risks, but right now I’m looking hard at the situation,” said Mr Churchill, 32. “It used to be real cloak-and-dagger stuff, but now Base jumping is becoming more of a known sport, and Sean was a big part of that. The guy just wanted to live his life to the absolute maximum.”

Roger Holmes, one of the country’s longest serving Base jumpers with more than 10 years’ experience, has vowed to continue jumping with Richards’s “rig”, so his memory will live on. “I’ve had a few mates killed now and it always puts you in a contemplative place, but we have to look at the reasons for each accident and move on,” said Mr Holmes, 38.

“Some people are talking about stopping jumping, but deaths will never stop it. We know this has happened now, but it has happened before and it will happen again. It won’t stop Base jumping because the rewards are just so good. The whole experience is just the most intense, incredible sense of being alive you will ever encounter. I’ve been involved in a lot of other sports, and there’s nothing that even touches it. The feelings you get from it are just mindblowing, they really are.”

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