FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. - Thousands of people watched a pioneering parachutist from California jump to his death from a bridge during a festival Saturday when his chute opened too late, a sheriff said.

Brian Lee Schubert, 66, died of injuries suffered when he hit the water 876 feet below the New River Gorge Bridge during West Virginia's annual Bridge Day festival, Fayette County Sheriff Bill Laird said.

Schubert, from Alta Loma, 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, the nearly 3,000-foot-tall rock formation in Yosemite National Park.

The sport's acronym stands for the places jumpers usually leap from: buildings, antennas, spans and earth.

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, a popular event that 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.

Jumping at the festival continued after Schubert's body was recovered and taken to a funeral home.