Monday, 05 November 2007

The Tallest Tales

Tall buildings seem to hold a peculiar fascination for travellers in the land of urban legends.

Is it their subconscious fear of heights playing tricks on their minds and persuading them to believe any bizarre tale that comes along?

People have been known to leap off tall structures since time immemorial and, generally, they have simply hit the ground and expired. But not in the land of urban legends. Oh no, here the jumpers have to face a few extra indignities...

The wind beneath your wings

Many years ago, a deeply depressed young man tried to take his own life by leaping from the observation platform at the top of the Empire State Building in New York.

What he did not realise was that the winds are so strong at that height, it is impossible to leap out and simply fall down. As the man jumped, a powerful blast of wind hoisted him up, and roughly deposited him back on the observation platform. He was so shocked, he went home to reconsider his ways.

That's what one might call the baseline suicide legend about tall buildings. The result of that little tale is that, today, thousands of visitors to the Empire State Building firmly believe you cannot jump off the top due to the high winds.

The legend has also given rise to a popular joke - often the final resting place of old urban legends - in which a man in a pub at the top of a tall office block is telling a fellow drinker some truly tall tales.

Seeing the man swallow it all whole, he tries a real whopper: he says that, because of the high winds around the top of the building, he could step off the roof and "stand" on the wind without falling. This time the man wants evidence.

So they go out on the roof and, sure enough, the man "stands" on the wind. The other drinker is real impressed. he wants to try it too. So he steps off the roof - and plunges screaming to the road a hundred floors down.

As the man takes his seat back in the pub, the barman turns to him: "Boy, Superman, you sure are nasty when you've had a few drinks."

The fall that had it all

A suicide tale that gripped the world in the 1990s turned into a virtual chain letter, with copies flooding fax machines, e-mail and mail boxes around the globe. It usually comes in the form of a report of a speech made at an awards dinner of the American Association of Forensic Science, where the president told the sad story of one Ronald Opus.

He "had jumped from the top of a ten story building with the intent to commit suicide (he left a note indicating his despondency). As he passed the 9th floor on the way down, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, killing him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the deceased was aware that a safety net had been erected at the 8th floor level to protect some window washers and that the deceased would not have been able to complete his intent to commit suicide because of this... the fact that his suicide intent would not have been achieved under any circumstance caused the medical examiner to feel that he had homicide on his hands."

But then other facts began to emerge, one by one:

The room on the 9th floor from where the shotgun was fired was occupied by an elderly couple. The husband had been threatening the wife with a shotgun, but he was so upset, he couldn't hold the shotgun straight. He pulled the trigger, but completely missed his wife and hit Ronald Opus as he fell past.

It then emerged that the old man regularly threatened his wife - but with an unloaded shotgun. The verdict looked like accidental death.

But further investigation now turned up a witness: their son had been seen loading the shotgun some time before the fatal accident. It turned out that his mother had cut off her son's financial support and he, knowing of his father's threatening ways with the shotgun, loaded it in the hope that his father would shoot his mother. Now the verdict looked like murder again.

Except that it was now discovered that the son had become deeply depressed after several weeks of nothing happening between his parents, and had decided to take his life. As he leaped off the building, he was killed by a shotgun blast through a 9th story window.

Ronald Opus, it turned out, was the son of the arguing couple. He himself had loaded the weapon that accidentally killed him. The medical examiner closed the case as suicide.

Window pains

There are even taller tales from one of the world capitals of highrise buildings, Chicago. Supposedly, urban legend has it, a law firm was having an office party, and one of the associates had a bit too much to drink, and had taken off his shoes to play around sliding on the marble floors. The office had floor-to-ceiling windows, and he went sailing through the window and fell thirty stories.

In another Chicago "glass curtain" highrise, a few windows fell from the 70th floor and shattered in the road below.

People were horrified that they could have been near the windows at the time, and several refused to return to work on the 70th floor.

One executive tackled the problem head on: he invited his staff to gather round, braced himself against a wall, and then ran the length of the office and threw himself at the window. The window didn't even vibrate. he broke his arm, but at least the 70th floor was soon back to full productivity.

Welcome mat

In San Francisco, it is believed, plastic mats used under office chairs to enable them to move around carpets more easily, are banned from the top floors of the city's tallest building.

The reason? It was found in simulations that in an earthquake the buildings were designed to sway but, because of inertia, the person sitting in a chair on a plastic mat would stay exactly where they were, while the building itself would sway with the quake. The result? The floor would appear to zip out from under you and you would be deposited, chair and all, in mid-air.

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