The Freedom Tower skydivers weren’t the first: Here’s the insane, morbid history of urban BASE-jumping


View of One World Trade Center, also known as the “Freedom Tower,” and the Manhattan skyline looking south from the Empire State Building. (AFP photo/Stan Honda)

A trio of daredevils who parachuted off New York’s Freedom Tower in September released amazing footage Monday of their 105-story flight from the roof to the street below.

A trio of skydivers who staged a controversial jump from the Freedom Tower, 1 World Trade Center, on Sept. 30, 2013 posted footage from their jump. They have since been arrested. (YouTube/NYC B.A.S.E. Jump)

But as breathtaking — and terrifying — as the jump seems, it’s not particularly novel. By my count, at least six people have BASE-jumped off the World Trade Center since 1975 — and those are just the ones who got caught. When you factor in all the people who have jumped from other New York skyscrapers — plus the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago and the CN Tower in Toronto — you end up with a list of hundreds of dangerous and vaguely illegal stunts, dating back to the 18th century. (The first BASE jumper, by Time’s reckoning, was a Frenchman named Louis-Sébastian Lenormand, who parachuted off a Montpellier observatory tower in 1783.)

Of course, the practice wasn’t called BASE-jumping back then. That term is an acronym for Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth, and was coined in the early 1980s. The sport enjoyed something of a heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, when cities had yet to pass laws banning the jumps. Since then, ordinances in cities from New York to St. Paul, plus a string of high-profile deaths, have made the jumps appear even riskier — and to some thrill-seekers, more appealing.

“They walk where they’re not supposed to walk. They climb where climbing is not allowed,” the New York Times’ Robert McG. Thomas Jr. wrote in an ode to BASE-jumpers and other daredevils in 1993. “… They are the daring and endearing fools who rush in where angels fear to tread, and when they do, it is generally the angels who lead the applause.”

Skydiving enthusiasts are quick to point out that BASE-jumpers flit at the edges of their sport; according to one study, BASE jumping is five to eight times as likely to result in injury or death. But, regardless of the dangers, BASE-jumping has a long and proud — even arrogant? — history. Here’s an overview of its last 40 years.

Nov. 8, 1974: A steelworker and parachuting hobbyist named William Eustace jumped from the half-completed CN Tower in Toronto, which was already well on its way to becoming the tallest structure on earth. (Since then, to Canada’s disappointment, the CN has been surpassed several times over.) Eustace was fined $50 and fired from his job, but he remains the only person to make an unsanctioned jump off the tower. Only two other CN jumps have been attempted since then — and those were both by a professional.

July 22, 1975: Owen Quinn, an unemployed construction worker from Queens, became the first man to parachute off the 110-story World Trade Center when he jumped from the north tower. He hit the building on the way down, cutting his leg, and police arrested him when he landed. But charges were dropped, and Quinn recovered. Twenty years later, he told the New York Daily News, “the moment my foot left the building, I was in my own realm, and I felt wonderful.”

Sept. 15, 1980: An unidentified man parachuted off the World Trade Center, scaling an electrified fence and jumping from the south tower. The descent took about a minute and a half. According to the Associated Press, the parachutist packed his parachute into his truck and drove away before police could catch him.

June 1981: Four men parachuted from the top of the 75-story Texas Commerce Bank on a Sunday morning in Houston. A year later, a story in the New York Times would report that the men had gone on to jump from dozens of skyscrapers, bridges, television towers and construction cranes around the area. They had become, the story said, “the main practitioners of a rather startling pastime known as BASE jumping.”

Sept. 10, 1981: John Carta, a 35-year-old veteran who served as a helicopter gunner during Vietnam, parachuted from a small airplane onto the World Trade Center’s south tower observation deck. Authorities told UPI they were amazed he actually landed on the deck, given all the stuff in the way.

Nov. 9, 1981: Carl Boenish and two companions leapt off the yet-unfinished, 54-story Crocker Center tower in Los Angeles. The jump took less than 30 seconds, and Boenish’s getaway couldn’t have taken much longer. The jumper told the AP that while there was no law against BASE-jumping, police had warned him they’d try to get him on trespassing charges.

May 18, 1983: A man who parachuted from the 70th floor of Houston’s Allied Bank Plaza later tried to tell police he had fallen, not jumped, when it appeared they would press charges.

June 1, 1983: Robin Heid, a 29-year-old Denver parachutist, was hospitalized with a broken leg after jumping from a skyscraper and landing on another building. “We’ve looked through our city ordinance book, and we really couldn’t find anything to cover somebody jumping from a building,” police complained to the AP.

April 24, 1986: Two British tourists parachuted from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, the first to jump from that building. One of the men, who was caught by police when his parachute strings got tangled in a light post, told the AP it was “quite frightening. I mean, it’s not a normal thing to do.”

Oct. 17, 1986: An Australian man parachuted from the Statue of Liberty after noticing an open door that led to the torch. He was later charged with trespassing. “I just couldn’t help myself,” he told AP.

May 18, 1986: Two parachutists in Pittsburgh jumped off the 841-foot U.S. Steel Building shortly before that city’s marathon. Police indicated to AP that it could have been a copycat of the Empire State Building stunt.

Dec. 18, 1989: Four parachutists jumped off L.A.’s 40-story Century City high-rise, but only three made it to the bottom. Richard Allen Pedley Sr., a “veteran sky diver,” hit the tower three times on his way down before landing on an adjacent building. The Los Angeles Times reported that Pedley was flown to the UCLA Medical Center, where he later died of his injuries.

June 10, 1990: A BASE-jumper died in Philadelphia when he jumped from the unfinished, 54-story Mellon Bank around 6 a.m. At the time, the bank was Philly’s tallest structure. According to a UPI report, his companion landed safely.

Aug. 18, 1990: Carta, the Vietnam vet who famously jumped onto the World Trade Center in 1981, fractured his back in three places after his parachute failed to open on a jump from the 27th floor of the then-unfinished American President Cos. building in Los Angeles. Authorities considered pressing charges, but decided a broken back was punishment enough, AP reported. The injury wouldn’t end Carta’s career, however. The very next month he took part in “an ill-fated aerobatics display” in a World War II plane — the plane crashed, killing all eight passengers aboard.

May 8, 1991: Another New York daredevil jumped from the World Trade Center before making a speedy getaway. AP reported that this jumper’s defining trait was possessing the guts (or gall?) to jump during evening rush hour.

Feb. 10, 1992: Roy James Stevens and Jack James Burke BASE-jumped off the unfinished 42-story skyscraper in Tampa’s C&S Bank Plaza … landing, unfortunately for them, right in front of an off-duty cop. They were arrested, AP reported, though Stevens insisted the only crime the pair had committed was “stealing altitude.”

Aug. 4, 1992: A construction company fired several of its employees after they helped a man parachute from a 600-foot crane in midtown Atlanta. According to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the construction workers had no regrets.

Dec. 9, 1994: “Drop Zone,” an action-adventure about “a tough cop” and “a professional skydiver,” premieres in the United States. The film was co-written by skydiver Guy Manos, and Manos and his wife actually performed many of the movie’s BASE-jumping stunts themselves. It was, nevertheless, a huge flop.

May 23, 1995: A 31-year-old doctor fractured his skull after parachuting from the roof of Seattle’s Columbia Seafirst Center, then the second-tallest building on the West Coast. AP reported that the man’s chute collapsed and he hit the building after a gust of wind blew him off course. Two companions were unhurt.

June 10, 1997: Five skydivers climbed the scaffolding of a 30-story building under construction in downtown Charlotte, N.C., and parachuted off around 6 a.m. Police told the Charlotte Observer the men were “part of a national movement of daredevils who feel the need to ‘christen’ every new skyscraper by jumping off of it.”

Oct. 25, 1998: Two men parachuted from the Empire State Building and landed safely on West 34th Street. One of those men, the Norwegian parachutist Thor Alex Kappfjell — nicknamed “The Human Fly” by the New York Post — would go on to jump from the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building three days later, and the World Trade Center five months after that. After that jump in March 1999, the 32-year-old Kappfjell told the Post: “This was the number-one dream in my life … I’m going to get some margaritas and celebrate – and then I’m leaving town tonight.”

April 2, 1999: The Human Fly, alas, did not make it out of New York. On April 2, Kappfjell pleaded guilty to three felony counts — including one of first-degree reckless endangerment — in order to avoid jail time. A judge sentenced him to seven days of community service, the New York Times reported. Kappfjell promptly sued a syndicated TV show called “Extra” for turning him over to police and then returned to his native Norway, where he attempted a 3,000-foot fjord jump that July. Kappfjell got lost in the fog on his way down and hit the face of a cliff, where he perished. This segment was made before his death.

Dec. 31, 2000: In a prominent early example of sanctioned BASE-jumping, 15 parachutists from the United States, Europe and Asia jumped from Malaysia’s Petronas Twin Towers as part of a New Year’s celebration. The Petronas towers, at 1,483 feet tall, were then the tallest buildings in the world. According to AP, more than 100,000 people watched the record-breaking jump.

April 14, 2001: A 33-year-old Kentucky man parachuted from the top of a New York office building and landed on a sixth-floor roof next door. The man told police he came to New York because “there are no tall buildings in Kentucky,” reported the Daily News.

Sept. 2, 2001: Salt Lake City skydiving instructor Johnny Winkelkotter won first place in what AP called “a rare international tournament of extreme skydiving.” The tournament, like the New Year’s jump a year earlier, went down at Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers. Winkelkotter and 50 other competitors jumped from an 872-foot balcony halfway up the skyscraper, to a 33-feet-wide target on the grass below.

September, 2001: In the wake of Sept. 11, at least two companies began marketing “safety parachutes” to people living and working in tall office buildings. The parachutes, which retailed between $800 and $1,600, never quite caught on.

July 23, 2003: Hollywood gets in on the BASE-jumping action once again, hiring parachutists Per Eriksson and Martin Rosen to jump off the 84th floor of Hong Kong’s Two International Finance Center for the film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” The movie doesn’t get much better reviews than “Drop Zone” — and that’s not exactly a high bar.

Oct. 5, 2004: Roland Simpson, an Australian parachutist, is fatally injured in a sanctioned jump off Jinmao Tower, China’s tallest skyscraper.

April 28, 2006: J. Ray Corliss IV, the soon-to-be-infamous host of Discovery Channel’s “Stunt Junkies,” hid a camera and parachute gear under a foam fat suit when he went through security at the Empire State Building. Despite the elaborate disguise, a building guard grabbed Corliss’ ankle as he climbed over a security fence on the side of the building. That marked the end of Corliss’ BASE-jump ambitions, but the beginning of a years’-long legal battle between Corliss, the Empire State Building and the state of New York.

Oct. 21, 2006: A Chicago judge dropped charges against three men who jumped from a construction crane, provided they promise not to parachute for the next six months.

Jan. 18, 2007: A Manhattan judge dismissed charges against would-be Empire State jumper J. Ray Corliss. But wait! Four months later, in April, building management filed a $12 million civil suit against Corliss for losing them money, AP reported. Corliss then countersued for $30 million, alleging damage to his reputation.

March 3, 2008: A Queens council member introduced an anti-BASE-jumping bill that would explicitly make the sport illegal in New York City.

April 2008: Legendary jumpers Hervé le Gallou and Dave McDonnell snuck into Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, disguised as engineers, and jumped from the 155th floor. In doing so, the New York Times wrote on le Gallou’s death four years later, they became “the first people to base-jump from the tallest building in the world.” Dubai would later let two more men jump from the tower legally.

Nov. 14, 2008: A second trial began against would-be Empire State jumper Corliss in Manhattan state Supreme Court. The case stretched on for three more weeks before a judge convicted Corliss of misdemeanor reckless endangerment. Corliss later settled his case with building management secretly.

April 28, 2013: The feature-length documentary “McConkey” premiered in New York. The story chronicles the life and death of Canadian skier and BASE-jumper Shane McConkey, who parachutted from the Chrysler Building, among other landmarks, before dying during a bad jump in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. The documentary, which included footage of McConkey’s Chrysler jump, was an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival.

June 21, 2013: A trio of skydivers cut the locks at Chicago’s Trump International Hotel and Tower, covered the lenses of security cameras and climbed 92 flights of stairs in order to jump from the building. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that all three got away.

Aug. 27, 2013: Jeff Provenzano and Miles Daisher jumped off Denver’s 45-story Four Seasons Hotel … legally. Proceeds from the Red Bull-sponsored jump went to charity. Red Bull has sponsored a number of prominent BASE-jumps, bringing some corporate involvement and legitimacy to a traditionally transgressive sport.

Sept. 30, 2013: Three mystery men jump off the newly built Freedom Tower sometime after 3 a.m. Authorities said Andrew Rossig, Marco Markovich and James Brady were captured by a security camera on the ground, however, and were instructed Monday to turn themselves in to New York police. Rossig told the New York Post the men didn’t intend any disrespect to 9/11 victims, but the Freedom Tower is “the biggest building in the Western Hemisphere.”

That may be true — but it’s still clearly kind of been done before.

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (tinyletter.com/cdewey)

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