Segway owner dies after falling off cliff

LONDON — A wealthy British businessman who owns the company that makes the two-wheeled Segway has been found dead in a river in northern England after apparently falling off a cliff on one of the vehicles, police said Monday.

The body of 62-year-old Jimi Heselden and a Segway personal transporter were found in the River Wharfe and he was pronounced dead at the scene, West Yorkshire Police said.

A witness had reported seeing a man fall Sunday over a 30-foot drop into the river near the village of Boston Spa, 140 miles north of London.

“The incident is not believed to be suspicious,” police said, indicating that they do not believe anyone else was involved.

Heselden, who bought control of the Bedford, N.H.-based Segway company in December, made his fortune through his firm Hesco Bastion Ltd., which developed a successful blast wall system that replaced the sand bags once used to protect troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hesco Bastion confirmed that Heselden “died in a tragic accident near his home in West Yorkshire.”

Police have not revealed further details about the incident.

The battery-powered Segway, which is stabilized by gyroscopes, was invented by Dean Kamen, who founded the company in 1999.

The unique Segway transporter relies on electricity to recharge its batteries and travels at speeds up to 12.5 mph, the company says on its website. It is more protective of the environment than other scooters and automobiles, the company says, claiming it is 11 times more efficient than the average American car and also can be used indoors because it has no emissions.

Yet the lack of information about the circumstances surrounding Heselden’s death prompted new questions about the Segway’s safety record — concerns that have been raised before.

The company recalled all its U.S. vehicles in 2006 because of a software problem that could cause its wheels to reverse direction, causing riders to fall off. The vehicle has also not been approved in Britain for road use, despite protests from Segway loyalists.

Segways have been banned by some U.S. cities but have also been embraced by other U.S. police departments as a useful tool in community patrols.

President George W. Bush tried a Segway at his family’s home in Maine in 2003 but the vehicle fell over when he tried to get on. The president was able to hop over the transporter and was unhurt.

British TV host Piers Morgan, set to replace Larry King on CNN, also fell off a Segway — one of dozens of Segway mishaps that can be seen on YouTube.

Heselden left school at 15 and first worked as a coal miner before becoming a businessman and later a well known philanthropist in Britain. Hesco Bastion is a privately held company based in Leeds, near the tough Halton Moor area where Heselden grew up.

The company said Heselden recently gave $15.9 million to the Leeds Community Foundation, raising his total charitable giving to 23 million pounds.

“Jimi was an amazing man who, apart from being a wonderful success story for Leeds due to his business acumen, was also remarkably selfless and generous, giving millions to local charities to help people in his home city,” said Tom Riordan, the chief executive of Leeds City Council.

He described Heselden as a quiet, good-natured man who was tremendously proud of being from Leeds and who believed that those who had prospered had an obligation to help others.

“There are people out there who are making money, and when times are good I honestly believe people have a moral obligation to use their wealth to help others,” Heselden told the Yorkshire Post earlier this year. “Life turned out pretty well for me, but I still work in the same area where I grew up, and everyday I see people who for whatever reason are down on their luck.”

Hesco barriers, wire frames that are fitted with liners and filled with dirt, sand or rocks, have mushroomed around the world’s battlefields, where U.S. and its allied troops use them to protect their bases. The barriers have also been used to fortify flood walls in places like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or to stop oil from fouling delicate marshes along the southern U.S. coast during the massive BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Despite the YouTube videos, one U.S. businessman was quick to defend the Segway’s safety record.

Mobile Entertainment, which has offered Segway tours along the Mississippi River for the past seven years, has had more than 40,000 customers — most of them new to Segway — ride the device without any serious injuries, owner Bill Neuenschwander said.

“Nobody’s gone off a river, nobody,” he said, speaking Monday from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I can tell you firsthand: I can’t believe how safe this product is.”

He said the Segway was also easy to use off the road — on gravel, grass, hills or other steep inclines.

“People get it right away,” he said. “This product is perfectly safe when people respect its limitations.”

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