Jean Boenish opens up to PEOPLE about her husband's life
Credit: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Over three decades have passed since Jean Boenish woke up one morning to learn that her husband Carl, regarded as the “father” of BASE jumping, had been tragically killed hours after the couple had set a world record by leaping from a 3,600-foot vertical rock face in Norway, nicknamed the Troll Wall.

“I don’t dwell on it,” says Jean, 55, who still doesn’t have all the answers about exactly why her husband decided to jump from a section of the mountain that they’d deemed too dangerous the day before. “All I can do is learn from it and then go on. That was Carl’s philosophy.”

The story of Boenish’s life and his passion for the sport that ultimately killed him at 43 (his death became the seventh recorded BASE jumping fatality) is chronicled in the gripping documentary, which premieres on CNN on Sunday, Jan. 17 at 9 p.m. (ET).

A trained electrical engineer and experienced skydiver, Boenish left his job at Hughes Aircraft in 1968 to pursue filmmaking and parachuting. A decade later, the fearless, perpetually grinning Boenish, who meticulously planned out each jump, led a group of skydivers who leaped off the 3,000-foot summit of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

“We want to feel like we’re astronauts walking on the moon,” gushes an enthusiastic Boenish in the documentary. “It just gives us a feeling of power and of joy and we want to share it with the world.”

Boenish went on to help coin the name of the new sport, which soon became known as BASE jumping, an acronym for buildings, antennas, spans and earth. Before long, he and Jean (who decided to got married after their fourth date in 1979) – along with an intrepid band of thrillseekers – were making headlines as they leaped from skyscrapers, radio antennas, bridges and mountaintops.

“He loved the sense of freedom and breaking through the artificial limitations of what could be done and what couldn’t be done,” Jean tells PEOPLE. “He loved expanding the sense of the possible.”

Jean opted to sleep-in on that fateful morning in July 1984 when Carl was killed. One of the painful lessons she gleaned from his death was that the sport her husband helped create can get “very dangerous, very quickly” due to its low tolerance for error.

“Carl changed his plans on that morning [and jumped from another, more dangerous site],” says Jean, who made her last BASE jump in the late 1980s. “I wasn’t privy to why. But you always end up in ticklish territory when you change your plans midstream.”

Carl was hardly the last BASE jumping fatality. At last count, the sport has claimed the lives of 275 people, including 27 in 2015.

More than half of those fatalities have occurred since 2009 and Jean, who says the sport “has gone in a different direction” from its carefree, early days, is hard-pressed to fully explain why so many people are dying.

“You have to look at peoples’ motivation,” she explains. “We did this because it was our lifestyle, not for publicity or attention. We only wanted to inspire people about what was possible.”