Daniel Ruth: One giant leap for mankind

To mend hearts, sometimes it takes brass. So perfectly sane people rappelled the 22-story Franklin Exchange Building for Heartbeat International. Ruth family photo
To mend hearts, sometimes it takes brass. So perfectly sane people rappelled the 22-story Franklin Exchange Building for Heartbeat International.Ruth family photo
Published December 3 2012

From time to time I get invited to do stuff — give a speech, participate in a golf outing for some good cause, serve as a guest bartender (always a favorite). But this was something different.

"We'd like you to jump off a building," came the offer from Christine Conley. And like the idiot I am, I said sure, no problem. What could possibly go wrong?

But that was months ago, and the time was drawing nearer Saturday when I was scheduled to rappel 280 feet from the rooftop of the 22-story Franklin Exchange Building in downtown Tampa. That's the building with the giant lizard mural draped over the west wall. For this day, the image should have been changed to the Angel of Death. Or perhaps not.

One might ask why one would step off a perfectly fine building when an elevator might do rather nicely. Dubbed Over the Edge, this was a fundraising event for the worthy Heartbeat International, a nearly 30-year-old charitable organization that provides critical research and cardiac care such as pacemakers, surgery and other therapies to thousands of people in developing nations around the globe.

One hoped Heartbeat International might also have a few bucks available for a net.

How do you prepare to do something like this? A few nights before my leap of fate, I found myself watching Die Hard, where Bruce Willis dives off the 35-story Nakatomi Plaza secured only by a fire hose. That was no help.

Instead, Heartbeat International retained the services of trained experts, who gave each of the 30 participants a primer on how to rappel. Before going up to the Franklin Exchange roof, we were taken to another section of the building to practice a two-story descent.

In reality, about the only risk we would face is irreparable harm to our egos by finding ourselves dangling helplessly off the side of the building and needing to be lowered to the ground by crew members.

We were taught to essentially position ourselves perpendicular to the side of the building and simply walk downward, slowly feeding a rope line through a descender mechanism that controls the speed. We would also be tethered to a second rope with a safety device that would automatically stop the descent if we went too fast. And we were fitted with a radio to stay in touch with the roof and the ground.

Conley said that in the history of the Heartbeat International rappel events, no one has been injured or backed out at the last minute. "People do it because they are adrenalin junkies and it's on their bucket list," she said. "And there are people who have no fear and want to jump off a building."

Then there are those looking for a cheap column. And that is how a 63-year-old man who has undergone triple bypass surgery and had a subsequent heart attack found himself standing on the edge of the Franklin Exchange Building. And did I mention I'm also incredibly accident prone?

"I don't want to hear that," scolded Conley.

Ellen Freiberg, a young colleague with tbt*, went off the building a few minutes ahead of me. Since I heard no screams of terror coming from below, I climbed onto the ledge to be hooked up and made a last-minute executive decision: Do not under any circumstances look down.

And then I took a step backward. To make sure the descender device in my left hand had enough slack to work effectively, I had to continuously feed the line with my right hand, which meant for the first half of the trip downward I was pulling on 100 pounds of rope. That probably explains why my arms felt like a couple of punching bags by the time I landed.

It seemed as if I had been working my way down the Franklin Exchange for at least half an hour, but in fact I made the descent in about 10 minutes, not exactly a Seal Team Six performance, but the average time for most novice rappellers.

At last it was over. Months of anxiety, months of visualizing Alan Rickman's rather messy end in Die Hard were over.

Freiberg caught up with me afterward. She looked ready to take another leap. Kids are like that. I wanted a nap.

Still, after walking down the face of a building nearly the length of a football field, how does one spend the rest of the day? The Bombshell of the Balkans and I went to see Skyfall. It seemed like the thing to do.