A group of University of Virginia students were exploring the Physics Building rooftop late Sunday night when a first-year student slipped, fell 40 feet and landed on concrete, according to police.
Thomas W. Gilliam IV, 19, was rushed to the hospital and declared dead early Monday morning. University officials called the fall a “tragic accident” in a statement. Police don’t suspect foul play or alcohol were involved, and they don’t think this was a suicide.
Gilliam’s death brings attention to a dangerous campus pastime — accessing the rooftops of locked buildings late at night by scaling walls, breaking in or traveling through the underground utility tunnels that crisscross campus. The sport has been called “after-hours adventuring” and “urban exploration” by the Charlottesville media, but it’s better known on campus as “steam tunneling.”
“Steam Tunneling is something of a tradition at UVA. Unfortunately, it’s probably one of the most dangerous, and one of the least understood, as well,” according to the now-defunct blog, “The Bold and The Ruthless,” which detailed how to access the tunnels, venture into locked buildings and onto forbidden rooftops. The blog mentioned the “amazing view” of Monticello from the top of the Physics Building.
The activity is already forbidden by university policies, but officials announced this week that those policies will now be strictly enforced and students will be prosecuted if they are found participating, according to The Daily Progress newspaper. The university is also increasing evening police patrols, changing the access system at the Physics building and installing locked gates or steel plates in the steam tunnels.
Gilliam’s grandparents live in Charlottesville, but his parents often moved and Gilliam had lived on three continents. Most recently, the family lived in Ireland, where Gilliam attended middle and high school, according to his obituary. At U-Va., Gilliam was a member of the First-Year Council and had applied to be a resident assistant in the fall.
“By all accounts, Tom was a bright light,” President Teresa A. Sullivan said in a statement. “Those who knew him thought him destined to lead an interesting life that would include his deep faith, his interest in caring for those less fortunate, and world politics.”
U-Va. isn’t the only school where students venture underground and on top of buildings. While these spots can be dangerous for students, it’s sometimes difficult for officials to fully barricade miles of tunnels or dozens of rooftops that need to be accessible to utility workers.
At MIT, some students call it “tunnel hacking” and organize tours of the miles of tunnels under campus. Last fall Georgetown University officials investigated a “loose hanging rope” that resembled a noose and was suspended from a pipe in a locked utility room in the sub-basement of Healy Hall. The area is off-limits to students but appears to have been illegally accessed using underground utility tunnels.
At U-Va., the Bold and The Ruthless blog was taken down this week to comply with “the letter and now intent” of university rules, according to a note on the Web site Wednesday afternoon. “For ourselves, we will undertake none of the proscribed activities and we strongly encourage former readers of this site to do likewise.”