Urban Explorers

by carolyn hughes crowley for the washington post
dec. 28, 2001

Trespassing in the night, urban explorer Andy Henderson sneaked into an abandoned vaudeville theater. At one point, his foot plunged through a crawl space, but, unhurt, he managed to climb to the roofless second floor. He leaned against a wall.

"Bricks started raining all around me - they missed me somehow," he says thankfully.

Living out his Walter Mitty fantasies, Henderson, a 22-year-old Ohio State University student, is a member of a growing and global network - loosely organized - of urban explorers. They illegally scramble, wriggle, tramp and shuffle their way into the inky blackness of steam and subway tunnels, shuttered factories and abandoned hospitals, prisons and missile silos. They typically are young, educated, employed and technically astute risk-takers.

Their hobby is a horribly unsafe - and potentially deadly - one, police say. Besides falling bricks and rotten floors, they risk exposure to viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites, industrial wastes, pesticides, herbicides, heavy-metal contaminants and gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and hydrogen sulfide.

And it's criminal, police say. "Unlawful entry, a misdemeanor, carries a penalty of up to six months' incarceration, and a fine of up to $100," says Peter Lavallee, communications director of the D.C. Corporation Counsel Office. "Trespass, a misdemeanor, too, results in a small fine," says Lavallee.

Undaunted, the explorers say the goal is to observe, not to vandalize. Their unofficial code: Look but don't touch. They exchange experiences and photos, the only mementos they take. They chronicle excursions in online magazines (www.Infiltration.org is perhaps one of the best zines for enthusiasts; a person with the name "ninjalicious" runs it out of Toronto).

A Web ring dedicated to touring "off-limits locations" (www.urbanexplorers.net) links 78 sites as far-flung as Australia, France and the Netherlands. In San Francisco, where U.S. urban exploration may have started in 1977, a group once held a black-tie-and-rubber-boots party in a sewer.

Most of the buildings Henderson examines belong to state or federal governments, he says, "because they leave buildings for possible future exercises and don't further use their deeds, whereas businesses would find sense in making more money" by reusing the buildings.

"You could take the negative view that I'm breaking in," he continues. "But I have no moral reservations because it's a victimless crime. If it's an occupied building, I stay away because entering is a felony."

Henderson always researches the histories of places he visits. "I've found artifacts, including a bulletproof vest and a 50-year-old moldy food canister in a bomb shelter, military records, and at a 1970s military base I found government-issued booklets on how to build a campfire and how to perform sentry duty with a lesson on how to position yourself so as not to fall out of a tree."

In a mental hospital's cemetery, two headstones identified the grave occupants as "specimens." In a Toledo funeral home, he found casket covers, religious items and medical waste, including bags of syringes. "The building had once been an ambulance dispatch company with paramedics," he says. "We found epinephrine, dopamine, serum of ipecac to make people vomit and sterile water to irrigate wounds."

Before entering a deserted hotel's vault, Henderson once cautioned his friends, "One of us needs to stand outside," to keep the rest from getting locked in. Prisons, on the other hand, wisely (and presciently?) remove all door locks, he says.

He recently sneaked into a just-closed amusement park. He and a friend, a college football player, climbed the roller coaster tracks. A guard making nightly rounds came within five feet of finding the two prowlers crouched in a go-kart.

Henderson posts his photographs on his Web site, www.geocities.com/forgottenohio, which in its two years has received more than 100,000 hits, he says.

He says he began urban exploring when he was 7 ("about the time you can go out without your parents") in vacated farmhouses and Civil War cemeteries around Columbus, Ohio. He has never been hurt; the worst injury he knows about happened to a friend who stepped on a nail in an abandoned prison. "He got a tetanus shot."

Authorities have a different take on urban exploring.

"People enjoying these activities can present dangers to themselves and others," says Lavallee.

Abandoned City

Arlington resident Abdul Rahimov, 36, a Harvard and Stanford graduate and a copy editor for a technical publication, likes to do his urban exploring in Detroit.

"Detroit is the most tragic case of urban abandonment in the United States" and one of the few centers of pre-Depression skyscrapers in the world, he says. Since the 1950s, he says, the city has lost half its population, slimming down to fewer than a million residents today.

On one trip, he climbed over a barbed-wire fence to enter Michigan Central Station, a neoclassical depot designed by Grand Central Station's architects that was completed in 1913 and abandoned in 1985. The floors were spongy from rain pouring in through broken windows. "It was spooky because the place looks almost neutron-bombed," Lin says.

He stared in awe at the waiting room's 76-foot-high ceiling. The room was littered with chipped pillars, piles of smashed marble and glass, and mutilated classical carvings.

Up he climbed, sweating in the wretched humidity, past hallways littered with dead pigeons and through the "airless, silent void." From the 18-story-high roof, he saw the abandoned Tiger Stadium, where Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline had played, and the elegant Ambassador Bridge arching to Windsor, Ontario. He climbed partway up the smokestack but quit because the ladder swayed.

"If the ladder failed, or if I slipped off, it would be a merry 200-foot ride to the tracks below," he says. "So I silently saluted the graffiti artists who had left their marks on the smokestack's summit and descended."

As he exited the station, he heard a cell phone ringing. "A guard? Another urban explorer? Who wanted to find out?" he asks. (Detroit police have never heard of urban explorers, according to Officer Glen Woods. Washington police say the same.)

Onward to the Statler Hotel, closed in 1976. It once had 1,000 guest rooms, 1,000 baths. "The rooms now looked as if the Battle of Stalingrad had been fought within them. I picked through piles of detritus," he recalls.

In the manager's office, Lin found a thin, moldy green bookkeeping ledger for 1938 to 1943. "Rates were $10 a night for this luxury hotel," he says. "I was respectful of the place, so I left the ledger."

Three 10-foot-tall ailanthus trees were thriving on the roof. "Ailanthus can grow anywhere," he says. "The winds deposited the soil there." He saw the new baseball stadium and Detroit's main street, Woodward Avenue, "a big thoroughfare to nowhere."

In Detroit, Lin says, "I saw the abandonment of a city, folded up and abandoned almost overnight."

Tunnel Rats

At some colleges, teams of students explore the supposedly secret, six-foot-high tunnels that carry electricity and steam across the campuses. At Virginia Tech, a 21-year-old from Richmond named Mike (who asked that his last name not be published) estimates that about 10 students explore that campus's six miles of tunnels. Some are dimly lit; most are pitch black.

"Temperatures are above 100 degrees and the humidity is near 100 percent," says Mike. "You expect a dank smell, but it's like the combination of a cave and an apartment building's laundry room. You hear hissing sounds of escaping steam, echoing over and over because the pipes are expanding. They make creaking, groaning, ticking sounds, which travel the length of the pipe and may seem like footsteps."

Despite the thrills, Mike got the scare of his life exploring them. One night, he was prowling though a tunnel dressed inappropriately in a winter coat. He started overheating and tried to escape quickly. He kept getting hotter.

"My mind played tricks on me," he recalls. "It seemed as if the tunnel was getting smaller and I was getting bigger. Finally - not soon enough - I got to the end. Trying hard to get out at a grate, I met a cockroach doing as I was."

Mike was lucky. Capt. Billy Cardwell of the Virginia Tech Police Department, which has caught a couple of explorers in the past year or two, says:

"Tunnel rats face a lot of dangers. Steam lines are better than 212 degrees and their pressure is 600 pounds, which means they are subject to burst, especially during start-up every fall and after a boiler goes down. Then it creates steam and cooks the person, removing his skin, and he dies quickly."