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Originally published January 7, 2013 at 12:51 PM | Page modified January 8, 2013 at 5:50 AM

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Sky diver missing near Mount Si thought to be dead

The search for a wingsuit-wearing sky diver in the Washington Cascade foothills will continue by helicopter as the weather allows, but officials don't expect to find him alive.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The ground search has been called off for a 29-year-old Florida sky diver who disappeared Thursday after jumping above Mount Si, and his family has resigned itself to the likelihood of his death, a friend said.

"I'm still expecting him to walk out of the woods," said Art Shaffer of Florida's Skydive Palatka, where Kurt Ruppert Jr. learned to sky dive more than seven years ago. "But they're saying that's not likely."

Sgt. Cindi West of the King County Sheriff's Office said the search was called off Sunday after nearly 400 people spent more than 4,000 man hours combing a 9-square-mile area in the steep, wooded terrain of Mount Si near North Bend where authorities estimated Ruppert was most likely to be found.

West said the sheriff's helicopter may resume the air search once weather permits, or if warranted by new information gleaned from Ruppert's cellphone or the chartered helicopter's flight path.

West said there is not a high expectation of Ruppert's survival, however.

"We can't say for sure that he is not alive," she said Monday. "But we had 386 people out there for three days calling his name and he didn't respond. That means he wasn't conscious enough to yell to us. Adding to that, it snowed the first night and has been pretty cold since then, raining off and on, and he was wearing just a thin layer of thermals and the one-piece jumpsuit that is probably not waterproof."

Ruppert, of Lake City, Fla., was taking turns sky diving from a helicopter with two friends on Thursday afternoon when he failed to arrive at the grassy landing area they'd chosen, according to West.

All three were wearing specially designed wingsuits, which allow sky divers to triple their free-fall time and to glide horizontally at speeds of up to 60 to 80 mph, West said.

The helicopter's pilot told officials he had last seen Ruppert when he jumped at an elevation of 6,500 feet, but neither he nor Ruppert's friends saw the jump or whether he deployed his parachute.

His blue parachute has not been seen, West said.

According to Shaffer, Ruppert had been an avid sky diver since making his first jump about seven or eight years ago. Since then, he'd logged more than 1,000 jumps and had been an early devotee of the wingsuit.

Shaffer said that Ruppert's girlfriend and other friends had flown to Washington to be part of the search but had conceded that the terrain was extremely difficult. He said they were having a memorial on the mountain instead.

In a message reposted Monday on Skydive Palatka's Facebook page, a woman who identifies herself as Ruppert's aunt says the family believes he probably did not survive the jump.

"We may never know what happened to Kurt, Jr.," she wrote. "We do know that the last time we saw him he was doing the thing he loved most in the world: flying fast and free over one of the most beautiful spots on earth."

Christine Clarridge: cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Information from The Associated Press

is included in this report.

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