Quarry-Jumping Season Opens With Fatality

A recent H.S. grad dies in illegal 65-foot jump made famous in "Breaking Away."

June 4, 2008— -- For thrill-seekers, it's a 65-foot free-fall rite of passage.

For law enforcement, it's the root of an endless cat-and-mouse game that too often ends in a 911 call.

That was the case Saturday when the sheriff's office, fire department and dive team in Monroe County, Ind., pulled Walter Ayala's unconscious body from a 26-foot-deep spot at the bottom of Sanders Quarry.

Ayala had leapt from "Rooftop," a 65-foot plunge made famous in the 1979 Oscar-winner "Breaking Away." The classic coming-of-age film is described in its trailer as "the story of four guys in imminent danger of turning 20" and opens with a sequence at the quarry that immortalized the illegal jump.

Ayala, 18 and a recent high school graduate, was in Bloomington for a high school track meet when he and two friends trespassed on the private quarry site, according to Sgt. Troy Thomas, a spokesman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.

Video rolled as Ayala made his attempt, and friends described watching as his body tilted back during the free fall. "They could tell it just didn't look right," Thomas said. "They noticed his head smack back hard."

Two friends can be seen on the video jumping in to help Ayala as he goes under. A passing photographer saw the commotion and called 911. The dive team, which conducts training at the site, retrieved his body. CPR was unsuccessful on the ground and in the ambulance. Ayala was pronounced dead at the hospital, Thomas said, and a county coroner ruled his initial cause of death as a drowning.

Thomas did not know the exact number of deaths that occurred in jumps from the Rooftop, but said that Ayala's was not the first. Despite the warnings, he said that the danger level just doesn't sink in. "There are people who have died there and people who are still paralyzed, but they want to experience it for themselves," Thomas said. "It's kind of like Russian Roulette."

Additional toxicology tests will take several week but Thomas said that authorities do not believe Ayala and his friends were drinking or using drugs at the quarry, two factors Thomas said are often involved in quarry jumping accidents.

In 2006 and 2007, 27 people died as a result of drownings at U.S. quarry sites, according to federal statistics posted on the Mine Safety and Health Administration Web site. Countless more are injured.

Capt. Jerry Minger, a spokesman for the Indiana University Police Department, described the famous "Rooftop" jump as "an attractive nuisance" to local teens and university students new to campus who may have heard rumors about the jump or seen "Breaking Away."

Ayala's friends told authorities that they were familiar with the movie before making the quarry visit. They had not, however, heard of the previous accidents, which have resulted in multiple fatalities in the past few years alone, according to the sheriff's office.

"You can imagine in this demographic of risk-takers, there's no way to specifically advise them against every conceivable risky behavior they could get involved in," said Minger, the university's police spokesman.

When his 20-year-old son talks about going quarry jumping, Minger said he reminds him that it is not only typically illegal, but you never know what may be sticking up from the bottom of a quarry or exactly how deep the spot is where you jump.

About 38,000 students attend Indiana University in Bloomington. Susan Williams, a university spokeswoman, said that quarry jumping often comes up in conversations between freshmen and student orientation leaders during the first week of school. Students are reminded, in addition to the possible dangers of jumping, that trespassing at the quarry site is illegal. The owners of the private quarry have also issued advisories to students warning them to stay out.

In addition to sheriff's officers who patrol the site -- sometimes in plain cloths -- Monroe County's Thomas said that a private security company has been authorized by local prosecutors to issue trespassing citations. Officers also tow cars parked illegally by visitors to the quarry. Still, he called enforcing the "No Trespassing" and "No Swimming" regulations a "never-ending battle" that takes police away from other duties. "We try to patrol it heavily, but due to manpower, it's an issue," Thomas said.

Thomas said the landscape of the quarry does not make deterring jumpers any easier. Officials may arrive at a low point on the quarry rim and jumpers above will see them and flee into the woods.

A YouTube search shows 17 videos from "Rooftop," many of which include references to "Breaking Away" in clip descriptions. Some even include warnings to would-be jumpers. Often, the thrill-seekers wear sneakers to protect their feet and provide additional grip at the daunting lip of the 65-foot jump. In all, there are nearly 700 video results for for the search terms "quarry jump."

On Sunday, the day after Ayala died, nearly 20 trespassing citations were written at the quarry. On Monday, a pair of jumpers were arrested after "getting belligerent" with sheriff's officers when they were confronted, Thomas said. Thomas said officers suspected that the couple arrested Monday had been drinking before they arrived.

Indiana University is hardly the only college where students with time on their hands and a feeling of invincibility go looking for similarly dangerous excitement. Ithaca, N.Y., for example, home of Ithaca College and Cornell University, is well-known by the popularized T-shirt slogan "Ithaca Is Gorges." Like the "Rooftop" spot in Bloomington, a slew of online videos detail Ithaca's jumping hot spots.

Thomas said that the sheriff's office knows that many people believe jumpers should be left alone. Regardless, oversight will be increased this summer, he said, particularly in light of Ayala's death.

"The reasons we take the actions we take is to prevent tragedies like that," Thomas said. "If we can write someone a ticket or tow someone's vehicle and it saves a life, then that's what we'll keep doing."