Friday April 4th, 2014

The trio had over a thousand BASE jumps between them. But stepping off a Building, Antenna, Span or elevated part of the Earth never becomes … routine. That’s one conclusion to be drawn from this remarkable video shot from the helmet-mounted camera of one of three men who jumped off the 1776-foot-tall Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center in New York City last fall, parachuting to safety on the West Side Highway.

Before taking the plunge, they say a prayer. “Thank you … dear Lord, that we made it this far,” says one of the thrill-seekers.

“Thank you, baby Jesus,” adds another, an inadvertent homage to the family dinner scene from Talladega Nights. Then, one by one, they step into the void.

“Each jump gets a little bit harder, mentally,” says Andrew Rossig, a 33-year-old carpenter, “because you’re aware of the statistical percentages that, the more I do this, the more likely I am to get injured.”

Rossig, James Brady and Marco Markovich got away clean the Freedom Tower jump, but showed up on various security cameras. Soon after, authorities put out word that they were looking for black-clad parachutists who’d dropped from the sky near One World Trade Center around 3 a.m. on September 30. Upon learning that the police were closing in on them, the three jumpers turned themselves in on March 24. In addition to being arrested and charged with burglary, reckless endangerment and trespassing, they were scolded by Police Commissioner William Bratton ("Being a thrill-seeker does not give immunity from the law") and the beleaguered Port Authority, which condemned the stunt as a violation of “the spirit of respect and reverence for this sacred site ….”

The jumpers intended no disrespect, Rossig told me. He also pointed out that they’d served a useful purpose by highlighting security flaws around the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. To reach the skyscraper, they simply walked through a gap in the fence surrounding it. “This is supposed to be one of the most secure places in the United States,” says Rossig. “And obviously it wasn’t.”

Having breached the perimeter, the trio still had to climb 105 flights, with their packs. When I noted to Rossig that he must be in pretty good shape, he replied, “Yeah, for a smoker.”

I reached Rossig through Tim Parlatore, the lawyer representing the jumpers, a character in his own right, who noted that, because of the existence of the video, he’d “thrown the normal defense attorney’s playbook out the window.”

“That’s another thing about this case,” he added. “It comes with an endless supply of puns.” During the bail hearing, when a judge asked Parlatore if his clients posed a flight risk, he resisted the temptation to reply, “No your honor, considering that we are only on the first floor.”

Parlatore got me on the phone with Rossig on Thursday for a quick Q&A:

SI EDGE: You’ve got 450 BASE jumps, plus you’ve jumped out of an airplane a thousand times. Which was scarier, jumping out of an airplane the first time, or your first BASE jump?

Andrew Rossig: My first BASE jump was far more terrifying. The guy who taught me was a few years younger, kind of a gypsy-type character. We jumped from an antenna on a transmitter tower.

SI EDGE: Where?

AR: You know, I don’t want to expose the location because there are other base jumpers, and they would not be happy. It was in the Northeast.

For your first BASE jump, you do a Pilot Chute Assist, or PCA. That’s when the instructor holds onto the pilot chute or bridle. It’s similar to a static line, out of an airplane. You’ve got a parachute over your head in 70 to 100 feet.

This instructor would say, ‘Okay, I’m ready!’ and I would say, ‘You have me?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but then as I would start me count he would say, ‘Ohhh – hold on a minute!’ He did that like three times while I was standing on the edge of this antenna. He and the other guys were having a laugh at me.”

SI EDGE: What a card!

AR: Yeah.

SI EDGE: You’re coming up on 500 BASE jumps. But do you still experience moments of doubt and dread, just before you step off?

AR: The more times you do it, the more you’re able to control your adrenaline levels. You’re thinking through what you’re about to do. There’s a battle within, your body telling you, ‘No, don’t do this!’ and, I don’t know what you’d call it – this beast within – saying ‘Go For It.’”

SI EDGE: Is this something you like, or is it something you need? Are you addicted to adrenaline?

AR: Do I need it? No. I’ve taken long periods off from parachuting, years at a time, where I take a step back and actually look at that specific issue of: Is this an addiction? Am I doing this because I have to do it, because it’s not a choice for me? Or am I choosing to do this?”

SI EDGE: What specific challenges did the Freedom Tower present?

AR: I would say this is one of the safer building jumps because of the altitude. As you exit a structure, as long as you push off, your body starts to fall away from it, and the further you are from the building at Opening Time.

Any jump, at the end of the day, is a controlled risk. All the factors need to be right: There has to be a clear line of sight to the ground, no clouds. The wind conditions have to be right. No pedestrians on the street. Your ground crew needs to be in place to make sure that if something happens, you’ll be taken care of.

SI EDGE: Was this building a kind of holy grail for you?

AR: For me it had been a dream for 10 years. Just getting to the top and having my parachute on my back, getting geared up, knowing all the conditions were right and that we were gonna get to make the jump – it was a dream come true.

Being at the highest point in New York City, looking down on everything, it kinda puts your life in perspective. At least for me, how insignificant I am, and how big the world is. Some people say it’s such an ego-based sport, but it actually puts your ego in check, and lets you realize how you fit in the scheme of the universe.

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