Love and BASE Jumping: Q &A With Bob Ash, Fiance of Bay Area BASE Jumping Victim, Shannon Dean

Categories: Sports
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Shannon Dean, BASE jumper
Our feature story this week looks into the sport of BASE jumping - leaping off buildings, antennas spans and earth with a parachute. A website chronicles the sport's 161 casualties to date. 

One of the victims was a Bay Area woman. In 2006, Bob Ash witnessed his fiance Shannon Dean fall to her death off the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, one of the only legal places to jump in the country. The two had lived together in San Mateo; Dean was 35 years old, Ash 42. The Chronicle covered Dean's death, but Ash has since gone on a journey of his own. "It all happened for a reason," he says. He's currently living in Shasta County and penning a book about the experience.

(Some of Ash's quotes have slightly tweaked for easier reading, without changing the meaning.)

How did you meet Shannon?
I met her skydiving. I'd been jumping for 15 years and she showed up at the drop zone with her boyfriend at the time...I had weird premonitions about her before I even knew her very well. I always felt a connection to her. I just felt she was going to be a part of my life.


Did you have second thoughts about dating someone involved in such a dangerous
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Bob Ash and Shannon Dean in Maui in 2005
sport?
I had to do some soul-searching about whether this is something I wanted to get into. There was a risk versus reward. We talked about this at great length and I think the reward was worth it for her. A week before she died we really got into a conversation about how important it was for her. It was a part of her that made her whole.

I felt very comfortable with their safety protocol. I watched how meticulous she was about her BASE jumping and the parachute packing, and her mindframe as she climbs up the tower, the focus. I was very proud of how serious she took the whole thing.  

What did Shannon get out of BASE jumping?
She grew up in an abusive family. So when she was growing up she dealt with insecurity and never really having a place in the world. BASE jumping is scary for everybody, I don't care who it is. For her, the ability to be that strong and overcome it [was empowering], the whole process of overcoming the fear, and realizing it's just her, there's nobody else that controls this part of her destiny, that she's 100 percent in control of it.

I could feel the confidence exude from her when she would jump. The result of it was joy. Regardless if it was in the middle of the night, and she had to climb a barbed wire fence and climb up an antenna, when she landed it wasn't like whew, I'm alive. It was more a life affirmation, some sort of connection with everything that exists. You know those moments where you feel more alive than you ever have?

Did you go with her on jumps?
Even on our first dates around San Francisco, she would be pointing up to the tops of buildings and [saying] I want to jump off the top of that. She was like a four year old going to Disneyland - uncontrollable giddiness. So how can you deny someone something that makes them feel that way?

On our second date she said I want to show you something. We came to an upscale condo complex. We walked in, she waved at the security guard, we get on the elevator, we get out on the top floor, about 30-40 stories high. She said, 'This is the first building I'm going to jump off.' She showed me what she was going to do and I saw how much thought she had put into it. She never got the chance to do it.

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Dean on the Perrine Bridge days before her death
Why did you head to Idaho that particular weekend?
I had just sold a business in the Bay Area a week before the accident. Shannon had just come back from an injury and hadn't been BASE jumping a lot. For her birthday, she said she wanted to go Twin Falls.

How did that final jump come up?
That weekend she'd done three jumps on Saturday, Sunday was rained out. Monday we were on our way to the airport, and it was such a beautiful day after the storm. The winds were calm. We looked at the clock and figured we had plenty of time to make one more jump. We were driving out of town at the time. 

So what happened?

I've watched the video I was filming at the time, and I still don't really understand how these pieces fit together. Physically it was a beautiful exit: she was completely stable, she reached back. What happened is when she threw the pilot chute out, the whole thing pushed onto her back in the triangle of dead air on your back with the air going up and over. All skydivers have had this happen to us before. In skydiving, you have a bunch of time, and you have to dip a shoulder to change the wind. In skydiving, it's a very solve-able problem.

Shannon turned her shoulder to clear it, but she just didn't have enough time. It's really a matter of one second. That's the difference between life and death: one second. Her body simultaneously hit the water as the chute began to open.

What did you do after she hit?
My reaction was pain and horror. I started running down the edge of the bridge as fast as I could. All I could think of was getting down to her and about two-thirds of the way down I just stopped and this thing happened to me. There was something in me that knew there was some form of consciousness beyond what I knew, because I felt her presence. She was in a place of pure joy, pure bliss.

Ash went to India, where the couple had planned to marry, and spread Shannon's ashes in a traditional ceremony. Ash began practicing yoga there, and has since become a yoga instructor.

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Ash at a ceremony in India to spread Dean's ashes
 
How has this changed you?
I promised Shannon I would get over this and I stopped trying to plan things and attach myself to outcomes of things, because when you have an experience like this, you realize everything could change in a second.

I was finally able to open to the idea of God. I was always a show-me kind of guy, that until I met something that proved it, I kept it at arm's length. But the thing is, something happened to me that I can't ignore. I became part of something I don't fully understand.

What was the BASE jumping community's reaction to her death?

By the time I got home from Idaho, I'd gotten 200 emails from all over the world from the BASE jumping and skydiving community. They are just the most amazing people in the world.

Shannon's mom was so upset that she wanted to make it her life's work to ban BASE jumping. She didn't know Shannon the way we did; she didn't know this joy and happiness. We had a memorial service in Southern California, and I drove down with a dozen skydivers. When we were there we could see the pain in that family. It was like they'd never overcome this. We had a reception afterward and the skydivers started talking to the non-skydivers, and they talked about how much joy she had doing it and it changed the entire event. The whole family could see another side of Shannon. By the time we left, I don't think the ban of BASE jumping was ever discussed again.

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Shannon Dean in Maui in 2005

All photos provided by Bob Ash

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