Two weeks ago Thomas Fuller jumped off the Manhattan Bridge. You never heard about it because he never hit the water. Fuller is a bungee jumper and has been leaping off the bridge for years. While he swings like a pendulum 15 stories below, about 20 other would-be jumpers quietly await their turn.
Fuller began bungee jumping in 1995 when he met Michael O’Mahony, a 6-4, intense ex-Marine who started leading jumping groups in 1993. Now the two are a team, sometimes–like tonight–joined by Ken Jensen, another jumping convert. Yes, bungee jumping off the Manhattan and any other bridge in New York is illegal. “Reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, trespassing–that’s what I’m doing,” O’Mahony admits. He’s never been caught, though he suspects the cops of benign neglect. And, no, O’Mahony and crew have never suffered a casualty. “There’ve been no injuries,” Fuller says, “except one guy who hit his head on a beam, walking along the bridge.”
O’Mahony’s been in the commercial bungee-jumping business since the early ’90s, first in Colorado, then off a crane in Tribeca. Unfortunately an unrelated 1992 Michigan bungee mishap caught on tape prompted New York to ban the cranes, replacing them with fixed 100-foot platforms. O’Mahony couldn’t afford the new equipment–or the million-dollar insurance policy. So the native New Yorker went back to the bridge of his youth, the Manhattan, where he used to “hang out, get stoned, laid, drop acid.” Alcohol and drug use are strictly prohibited on O’Mahony’s current excursions, however. Now he charges folks $20 for the experience–just enough to cover expenses–and his only insurance is the jumpers’ taped whispers that they are jumping of their own free will.
The adventure begins at midnight. Equipped with walkie-talkies, binoculars, and most important, a police scanner, O’Mahony starts by lecturing the thrill seekers on “escape and evasion.” If the jumpers get reported, the police have a seven-minute response time. Fuller will get the clients off the bridge while O’Mahony and Jensen break down the equipment and hide. Escape is certain, unless, of course, the bridge is shut down. Then, “the bridge will get totally quiet,” says O’Mahony. “It’s downright fucking scary. And then the helicopter will show up.” He knows what he’s talking about. When the chopper and police boats showed up midexpedition one night in 1994, “we were like scurrying rats,” O’Mahony says. Though the group was able to hide and avoid arrest, he concedes that if the police shut the bridge, all bets are off.
O’Mahony reassures the group at the jumping-off point: “Nobody is going to die tonight. The bungee cord is not going to break. The bridge is not going to fall down.”
At 2:30 Fuller takes the first jump.
“You all right?” O’Mahony shouts. He throws down the recovery rig Fuller is to attach to his waist and which will enable him to be pulled back up by the other jumpers.
Almost immediately O’Mahony tells the crew to stop. Something is wrong. Fuller’s recovery line has twisted around the bungee cord. This is a problem, since the friction could break the softer bungee cord.
“Shit.” O’Mahony thinks he might have to rappel down and untangle Fuller, something he dreads and has never had to do. Instead, since tonight’s group is so large, O’Mahony moves Fuller from a double- to a single-pulley system. (A single-pulley recovery requires twice the strength of a double to retrieve the jumper; O’Mahony’s usual group of three or four would not have enough power to reliably man a single-pulley line.) O’Mahony sends down the second line, which Fuller, dangling by his ankles, must attach before detaching the tangled original line.
“All right, Tommy,” says O’Mahony. “I’m going to pull you up on the other line.” Soon, Fuller is brought up to the platform and lowered down. A few nervous claps are heard.
“Who’s my next victim?” inquires O’Mahony calmly. Bruce, a 28-year-old photographer, is ready, straps attached to his ankles, waiting for the cord. Once up, he has three minutes. If he’s still standing after that, sweating the plunge, he loses his place. “If you leave your slot I absolutely understand,” O’Mahony says. “We’re not going to call you a wuss for not jumping off the fucking Manhattan Bridge in the middle of the night.” Bruce jumps.
O’Mahony will oversee 12 more jumps without incident before the group packs up at 5:15 a.m.
Unbelieveably, O’Mahony is not New York’s only regular bungee jumper. “Riley,” 33, is the first known person to jump off the George Washington Bridge–upper level, midspan.
“It’s actually called ‘renegade’ or ‘rebel’ jumping,” he explains. He compares the “sport” to “a well-planned bank job. I’d pull off a bank job if it wasn’t illegal.” But Riley, jumping off the George Washington Bridge is illegal. His answer: “I’m not harming anyone.” Riley explains the thrill: “Pulling off the stunt. From planning it, to the getaway.”
And what a getaway it is. He has a partner on the bridge to assist with the rigging, and another to drive the boat that picks him up below.
Riley, also the first to leap from the World’s Fair towers out by Shea Stadium, only works with his cousin “J.T.” Their experiences with the NYPD match O’Mahony’s: they’ve never been caught. “No one’s looking to catch us,” J.T. says. “The police have come, but nothing ever came of it. They’re more like, ‘Don’t die on my shift.’ ” He understands: “They have other things to worry about.”
J.T. has jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge as well as the old parachute jump at Coney Island. Other sites the cousins have jumped include the Red Hook silos and the 59th Street and Kosciuszko bridges. Their wish list? “The Roosevelt Island tram,” says J.T., and “the Verrazano.” But unlike O’Mahony, Riley says, “we do it strictly for ourselves.”
O’Mahony is unique. The only renegade jumper in the city who brings along amateurs, he feels he’s giving those strangers a lifetime experience. “What I give to people–the jump–they can take that with them wherever they go. If they can convince themselves that they’re going to be all right, that they’re going to tempt fate and live–it’s a decision. People want to feel that rush. We live in a world where gravity holds us down. We crave to fall and be free.”
O’Mahony stands behind his bungee proselytizing. “I would put my life first so a person could avoid going through pain,” he says. Is O’Mahony the last altruistic man in New York? Maybe. But maybe the combat veteran whose father died from AIDS is working out some demons of his own. When he boasts, “I own the Manhattan Bridge. It’s my house of worship,” he’s telling the truth.