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 James Heselden and a Segway personal transporter were found in the River Wharfe and he was pronounced dead at the scene, West Yorkshire Police said.
Police said a witness had reported seeing a man fall Sunday over a 30-foot (9-meter) drop into the river near Boston Spa, 140 miles (225 kilometers) north of London.
“The incident is not believed to be suspicious,” police said, indicating that they do not believe anyone else was involved.
Police have not revealed further details about the incident. A dozen members of Heselden’s family asked for privacy Monday after placing flowers at the heavily wooded accident site, which is popular with hikers and nature lovers.
The battery-powered Segway, which is stabilized by gyroscopes, was invented by Dean Kamen, who founded the company in 1999. The unique transporter relies on electricity to recharge its batteries and travels at speeds up to 12.5 mph (20 kph), the company says on its website.
The Segway is far 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.
Heselden, who bought control of the New Hampshire-based Segway company in December, made his fortune through his firm Hesco Bastion Ltd., which developed a system to replace the sand bags used to protect troops.
Hesco Bastion is based in Leeds, near the tough Halton Moor area where Heselden grew up. He left school at 15 and first worked as a coal miner before becoming a businessman and later a well known philanthropist.
Hesco Bastion said Heselden recently gave 10 million pounds ($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. He became wealthy through his business successes but said he and others 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,” he 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.”
The lack of information about the circumstances surrounding Heselden’s death prompted questions about the Segway’s safety record — which one U.S. businessman was quick to defend.
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 told The Associated Press.
“Nobody’s gone off a river, nobody,” he said, speaking 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.”