The High Price of BASE Jumping the World Trade Center
The three friends who leapt from the Freedom Tower may find themselves behind bars.
Jimmy sprinted for the edge and went airborne. As he dropped, the illuminated tower raced along at his feet as if he were surfing on a ribbon of lights. He deployed his chute. For a flash, he could see Andrew drifting alongside him. Andrew felt a completeness he’d never experienced before. More than a thrill, jumping the Freedom Tower felt like the most American quest of all. “That’s the greatest thing about our country,” he says. “You can pursue your dreams, even if they are illegal.”
“Turn on the tv.”
It was Monday morning, mere hours after the jump, and Andrew was telling his mom, who lived with him, to check out the news. “At 3:07 this morning, two individuals apparently parachuted to the front of the Goldman Sachs building,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told the press. Security cameras had captured their descent but not their launch point.
“We’re not 100 percent sure of the location, if they came out of an aircraft,” Kelly went on, “but they were seen walking away with the parachutes. What they came out of, we don’t know. They were wearing black suits and helmets, and they are believed to be men.”
Andrew’s mother already knew her son was one of them. He had not only spoken about jumping from the tower for years, but he’d also told her he’d succeeded when he’d returned home a few hours before. “We just sat around the kitchen giggling,” she recalls. She had long since stopped trying to talk her son out of his pastime because she knew he wouldn’t listen to her anyway. And because she had come to think it was pretty cool.
There are plenty of ways to jump off a building. But for Andrew Rossig, there was only one way to do it from the top of One World Trade Center.
It was 3 a.m. on September 30, 2013. Andrew, a wiry 33-year-old carpenter with dark curly hair, puffed a Camel as he gazed 105 stories down from the roof. Lower Manhattan sparkled in a blanket of darkness far below.
“Thank the fucking dear Lord that we made it here this far,” he told the two guys standing beside him. “He’s going to watch out for us. He likes drunks and stupid people.”
Everything felt so peaceful up there, the air quiet and cool. As he leaned over the edge, Andrew could see that the West Side Highway barely had any cars. The Hudson River, to the left, flowed in a long ribbon of black. The tip of the Empire State Building glowed uptown. Andrew had waited a lifetime for this moment, and now all he had to do was jump.
He and his buddies—32-year-old ironworker Jimmy Brady and 27-year-old skydiving instructor Marko Markovich—are BASE jumpers. Nicknamed for the four types of platform from which to hurl oneself—building, antenna, span, and Earth—the sport is known as the world’s deadliest for a reason. Adventure doesn’t get more extreme than this. Compared to skydiving, BASE jumping gives you way less time to properly deploy a parachute, and there’s also the risk of smashing against the object you’re jumping from on the way down. No wonder the sport has its own online database of fatalities and is banned in most parks and cities.
“Certain people are designed in certain ways,” says BASE-jumping legend Jeb Corliss, “and there’s a small group of people who just want to fly.”
Andrew, Jimmy, and Marko thrived in this outlaw underworld. They had logged more than 1,000 jumps among them. But on this autumn night, they had chosen the riskiest BASE of all, and not just because it was 1,776 feet high. They were about to plunge from the Freedom Tower—not yet completed but standing in the shadow of the two buildings destroyed, and 2,753 lives lost, on 9/11—a structure Jimmy himself had been working on for the past decade and had always imagined jumping off.
“It was a dream from day one,” he says.
Now the three friends had to survive not only the fall but also the punishment potentially to follow for having snuck into the biggest terrorist target in America. But at the moment Andrew, who spent his days building movie sets in Manhattan, wasn’t worried about any of that. He was finally living his ultimate fantasy.
The time had come to begin the countdown: “Three, two, one.” And then he flew backward into the night. Andrew wanted to jump off the World Trade Center long before the Twin Towers fell.
“I saw those buildings,” he says, “and it pushed me to be a BASE jumper.” A scrappy only child from Warwick, New York, he’d been a thrill seeker since he was a baby, his mother, Linda, recalls—flipping himself over his crib rail and bounding off his bike as it careened down the driveway.
“Amazingly, he’s never been hurt,” she says.
He had been skydiving since he was 18 but craved a greater thrill—and there seemed to be no greater rush than leaping from the WTC. He wouldn’t be the first to do it. In 1975, a World Trade Center construction worker, Owen Quinn, hit national fame when he parachuted off the Twin Towers—and was charged with trespassing, reckless endangerment, and disorderly conduct. Though the Towers fell on September 11, 2001, that didn’t end Andrew’s dream.
Three years later, he snuck out with a buddy to a 1,000-foot transmitter tower in New Jersey for his first BASE jump. As he climbed the tower in the dead of night, he went over the procedures in his mind: how to get air off a fixed object so that he’d clear any obstacles, when to deploy his chute, what kind of glide ratio he was facing. There was science to BASE jumping: using a laser range finder to determine the height of an object; dropping a rock from the top, and counting the seconds until it hit the ground. But the moment he hit the air, he felt something spiritual, too.
“For me,” Andrew says, “it’s just an acknowledgment to the universe that my time is not guaranteed here and I’m going to live it the way I want to live it. And faith is an action, and belief is an action.” After hundreds of jumps around the country, he knew religion when he found it. “Jumping,” he says, “that’s my church.”
It wasn’t easy finding a place to worship in New York City, which passed a misdemeanor law against parachuting off buildings more than 50 feet tall in 2008 after attempts at the Empire State Building and the New York Times offices. But last year, a friend introduced Andrew to someone who shared the same dream: Jimmy Brady. “He works on the Freedom Tower,” the friend said. “He’s an ironworker, and he’s a BASE jumper.”
The son of a sanitation worker on Long Island, Jimmy was a tough kid with a neck as thick as his accent. A high school track star, he dropped out of college to become an ironworker and spend his days scaling heights. When he was assigned to work on the new Freedom Tower in 2002, Jimmy, who describes himself as a “patriotic dude,” felt honored. Beam by beam, the tower rose, and the higher it went, the prouder he felt. On June 14, 2012, he was among the workers selected to meet President Obama, who came to sign a beam that Jimmy himself later installed on the building.
“We remember,” the president wrote on the steel. “We rebuild. We come back stronger!”
And, as Jimmy thought at the time, we jump. Like Andrew, Jimmy had been BASE jumping for years. Though he’d never leaped from a building, the prospect of tackling the Freedom Tower felt like the ultimate. “I thought about it every day,” Jimmy says. So when Andrew popped the question about the challenge, Jimmy didn’t flinch. “Yeah,” he later recalled, “I was cool with it.”
When jimmy asked his old friend and fellow BASE jumper Marko if he, too, wanted to take on the Freedom Tower, Marko’s palms broke into a sweat. For the skydiving instructor, it wasn’t the height that was scary; it was the risk of getting busted. “I didn’t want to go to jail,” he says. “I didn’t think it was worth it.” But in May 2013, after Jimmy helped erect the spire on top of the building, there was finally a roof from which to jump—and Marko couldn’t resist joining the team.
Photo Courtesy of Marko Markovich
Before packing their gear, the three men had to do their research. This wasn’t just about the jump—it was about breaking into a national landmark, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
First they had to make sure the weather would permit such a leap. Andrew had a reputation for being a stickler and calling off jumps if the wind was blowing more than five miles per hour. “I don’t want to be left scraping up somebody’s corpse because they made a stupid decision,” he says. To get the most up-to-date reports on downtown Manhattan, he began making daily calls to the automated weather-observation systems from the New York metro airports and cross-referencing them with weather Web sites. “As BASE jumpers and skydivers, we always watch the weather,” he explains. “It’s just like brushing your teeth.” Winds were in the sweet spot between three and five miles per hour, and the conditions were calm and cool. All the team had to do was keep checking to make sure nothing changed.
Next they had to assess the potential landing sites. According to their calculations, they would travel roughly one block if they deployed their parachutes after about six seconds of free fall. Booting up the satellite view on Google Maps, they could see that their options were limited. There were buildings just to the north and, to the south, the 9/11 Memorial reflecting pools—and the Homeland Security police trailer. Scratch that. The only suitable direction was west, right onto the West Side Highway—one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. They had to make sure to go when traffic was at its lightest. How twisted would it be to survive the 105-story fall only to get run over by a cab? They would jump in the wee hours of a Monday morning.
The last thing they had to figure out was how to get into the tower. Construction sites, they knew from experience, often change as work progresses, and so do the potential points of entry. “A lot of building jumping is kind of free form,” Andrew says. “You make it up as you go.” Of course, for this jump they had an inside man. But while Jimmy knew the building’s layout, he had no sway with the security guards. The trio would still have to sneak into the structure on their own.
So they cased the joint. Fences and large barriers surrounded the building, along with the surveillance cameras craning down from every street corner. The New York Police Department was said to have more than 200 officers protecting the area, along with cops and security guards from the Port Authority. But there seemed to be open spaces between the fence partitions here and there, and the building had no doors. Though the elevator was completed, they would take the stairs.
By the end of September, they had everything in place. When they searched the construction site, they found a tall barrier on the north side of the building with a gap between two parts of the fence—a gap just big enough for someone to squeeze through. Bingo. The weather forecast looked good, too. The time, at last, had come. Though Marko had been waffling, he made up his mind.
“Let’s just go do it,” he told Andrew and Jimmy, “as a team.”
At around 10:30 p.m. on September 29, Jimmy, Marko, and Andrew flipped the hoods on their matching black RAB jackets over their black helmets and walked, faces down, the last 10 blocks to the Freedom Tower. The three had met for pizza a couple of hours earlier and hydrated with water, and they were now making the final approach.
Authorities believe a friend of Jimmy’s, Kyle Hartwell, was also present as a lookout to check for cops and pedestrians—and to film the jump from below. The group had no intention of publicly releasing the video. Given the outlaw nature of the sport, they didn’t do that for any BASE jumps. But they wanted to record the moment for themselves, and so they had GoPro cameras affixed to their helmets, too.
As they neared the fence, they kept their heads down, concealing their faces from the surveillance cameras. A few cops were milling around in the distance. The Homeland Security trailer sat across the way, in the light of the reflecting pools. As Marko began waffling yet again, Andrew and Jimmy ribbed him, half-jokingly. “Shut up,” Andrew said. “Stop being a pussy.” Privately, though, they shared his trepidation. They weren’t idiots. They knew they were risking more than arrest: They were breaching the security of the World Trade Center site. If the men guarding it saw them, who knows how they might respond?
“We didn’t know if cops would shoot us in the back when we landed,” Jimmy says. For all security knew, the three men might have been packing explosives.
“Is there going to be an overreaction to this if we do get caught?” Andrew thought. “Are they going to just go, ‘Oh, my God, they’re terrorists’?”
If there was one thing that pushed the men through their fears, it was the jump. They wanted more than anything to complete it. And they weren’t about to turn back now.
“We made a decision to go ahead with something, and we felt good about it,” Jimmy says. “And that was it. That’s a powerful thing; that’s how bad we wanted to do this.”
They waited in the pedestrian walkway near the fence, as people passed in both directions. Andrew bent down to tie his shoe. Marko rifled through his backpack. Jimmy pretended he was taking a piss. And then, in a flash, they slipped through the gap. They quickly took cover behind a construction trailer, scoping the area for guards. The only ones in sight were huddled in the security booth on the corner. “It’s fucked up,” Marko whispered to the others. “We could have walked in here with bombs and taken the building down tonight.”
On three, they sprinted the 20 feet to the stairwell at the base of the building and, just like that, they were in. One by one, they dashed up the steps, SWAT team–style, each taking a turn running up a flight, peeking around the corner, then signaling to the others to follow. Twenty minutes later, they were on the roof, gazing upon the most outlawed vista in America. The city sparkled below—the arches of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the Empire State Building, the patch of black where Central Park began. They sat in silence, the red dots from the GoPro cameras flickering in the darkness. “We were just sitting there on the edge,” Marko says, “taking it all in.”
After a few blissful hours, though, he found something new to worry about. Around 2 a.m., as he was getting ready to jump, Marko pulled the rig out of his bag and examined the pilot chute, the one that pulls the main chute out during a jump. That’s when he noticed the gash. The nylon must have ripped on the fence as he was bolting through the gap. He could still make the jump, but he would have to quickly deploy his main chute by hand—cutting into the free-fall time he had assigned himself.
The sudden change of plans brought back all his anxiety. As he leaned over the edge, the fear hit him like a bolt of lightning.
But the time had come. Andrew said God was watching over them. Marko quoted a favorite line from Talladega Nights: “Thank you, baby Jesus.” They exchanged bro hugs. “Well,” Marko went on, “hopefully we won’t be in the fucking Fifth Precinct tonight with a fucking felony charge.” He looked down at the distant highway below and exhaled deeply. “This is some fucking shit right here,” he said, puffing again. “Oh, man. Fuck me.”
“Go ahead, man,” Jimmy said, “you got this.”
“This is so fucked,” Marko replied, staring down at the pavement until, at last, he got the nerve to leap. “Fuck it,” he said. “Three, two, one.” And he jumped. Almost instantly, he tossed out his chute, which puffed open with air. He drifted down as the wind rustled around him, glancing back at the radiant tower he’d left behind. Floating over the highway, he fearfully scanned for cops.
Andrew and Jimmy felt relief the moment they saw Marko’s chute open. “Beautiful,” Andrew said. About 10 seconds later, it was Jimmy’s turn.
“You ready?” he said.
“Yep. Have a good one, brother.”
“You too, man.”
But while Andrew tried to keep calm, Marko got a knock on his door. It was a detective from the NYPD. The guy must have come to him, he guessed, because he’d recently been busted jumping off a building uptown. According to court documents, Marko denied being one of the Freedom Tower jumpers. “I was not in New York City when the jump occurred,” he stated. “I don’t know anything about the jump.”
“I was just being a smart-ass to them for an hour,” he later said. “I didn’t really give them anything.”
Jimmy? He was back at work within hours of the jump, standing on the Freedom Tower’s roof—trying to soak in what he’d done. “It was out of this world,” he says.
And that, it seemed, was that. Life resumed its course: work, home, a little BASE jumping outside the city. But then Andrew was on his way to a carpentry job on February 17 when his mom called. “There are detectives at the front door,” she told him, “and they have a warrant.”
“Well,” he replied, “I guess you’d better let them in.” He came home to find eight NYPD officers and four state troopers inside. “Why don’t you just tell us what’s going on and make it easier on yourself?” one said.
“I’m going to call my attorney,” he replied, “and that’s my answer.”
Photo: AP Images
On that same day, the authorities served search warrants to Marko and Jimmy (who, like Marko, denied involvement) and left with their computers. But with the story not yet public, the three men and their lawyers couldn’t help wondering: Why would the city want to call attention to the fact that the biggest terrorist target in America could be so easily breached? So easily, it turned out, that even a 16-year-old boy could do it. On March 16 at 4 a.m., Justin Casquejo slipped through another opening in the fence around the Freedom Tower, climbed the scaffolding, and took the elevator to the 88th floor. He had no connection to Andrew, Marko, or Jimmy. He took the steps the rest of the way, slipping past a snoozing guard to the roof, and shimmied to the top of the antenna. He soaked up the view of the most killer sunrise in town—only to be caught on the way out.
As news of the daredevil boy hit the press, the public reacted with outrage over the vulnerability of the Freedom Tower. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called Casquejo’s break-in feat “shocking and troubling.” The boy faced misdemeanor trespassing charges. If the city was willing to make an example of him, just imagine what it might do to three grown men.
According to Corliss, jumpers have a long, distinguished history in New York City. “The Statue of liberty was BASE-jumped in, like, 1912, and people didn’t arrest the guy—they applauded,” he says. “Then he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. Times sure have changed.”
When the cops found the GoPro footage on the BASE jumpers’ computers, they weren’t amused. On March 24, on the advice of their lawyers, Andrew, Marko, and Jimmy went back downtown—this time to turn themselves in. “These arrests should send a message to anyone thinking about misusing a landmark this way,” New York’s new police commissioner, William Bratton, said. “Being a thrill seeker does not give immunity from the law.”
“Where we going?” the cab driver asks.
“Freedom Tower,” Andrew replies.
One month after the arrests, Andrew, Marko, Jimmy, and I are heading to the scene of the crime. The three haven’t returned to the site together since the morning they jumped, but in keeping with their decision to share their full story with me for the first time, they’ve agreed to take a trip down memory lane.
Charged with burglary, reckless endangerment, and jumping from a structure, they face up to seven years in prison (along with Hartwell, whose lawyers did not return calls for this story). Though it’s not uncommon for BASE jumpers to get arrested, a sentence that severe would be unprecedented. When Corliss got busted trying to leap off the Empire State Building in 2006, he ended up with a few years’ probation and 100 hours of community service.
Already, Andrew, Marko, and Jimmy have become the most notorious BASE jumpers in the world. The videos of their feat, which they decided to release on YouTube, have racked up more than three million views and summoned calls from Hollywood filmmakers. The clips are in fact helping to raise money for the trio’s defense. In addition, they’re fueling a heated debate over what the New York Daily News has lambasted as the “glaring security breach” of the site.
Among those who have voiced their concern is the leadership of the 9/11 Parents and Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims, which has come to the jumpers’ support.
Photographed by William + Hirakawa
“If these men were able to easily slip through a hole in the fence and encounter no security,” the group’s vice chair, Sally Regenhard, wrote to the New York Supreme Court judge, “then there is a huge problem at the WTC site, and no lessons were learned from the nearly 3,000 people who perished on 9/11, including our heroic sons. They should not be made scapegoats and, in our opinion, should be treated leniently.”
Whether the courts agree remains to be seen. Some in the BASE-jumping community fear the three men will pay a steep price because of the intense interest the case has generated. The jumpers, for their part, have pleaded not guilty.
Despite promises by the city, it looks like the security at the Freedom Tower hasn’t improved much, although it was recently announced that the same firm that guards New York’s airports will now patrol the site. Still, when we arrive at the building, we find yet another gap between the fences.
“If we wanted to, we could get in there right now,” Andrew says, as he takes a drag on a cigarette and shakes his head in disbelief.
If anything, he seems frustrated that he can’t take another run at the leap.
“To me, BASE jumping is a celebration of life and a celebration of freedom,” he says, gazing up at the tower. “I wish I could go again, during the day, and just watch it as I’m coming down.”
Photo Courtesy of Marko Markovich