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Journal: Blackout Exploration

Blackhurst is more like it
The view down Bathurst Street during the blackout. (Honest Ed's is on the right.)
University of Toronto (August 2003): On the night of the big blackout I really just wanted to sleep, but whenever I closed my eyes my head swam with tantalizing visions of a blackened city full of mute alarms and blind surveillance cameras. Throwing on some clothes, I headed outside and began the long march downtown. With my route lit only by headlights from the occasional passing car, I made my way to the darkened campus of the University of Toronto.
       Finding an unlocked entrance to a favourite spot, I crept through the silent, empty and unlit building with my flashlight in hand. Hearing some noise, I peered over a balcony ledge and caught sight of a light coming from the level below. I spotted a small group prowling the hallways and checking doors by the light of a single flashlight. Were these good guys or bad guys? I headed down a nearby flight of stairs, picked up their trail and silently followed them through the darkness. I established that the group consisted of four guys and one girl in their 20s, that they were familiar with the campus, and that they were harmless. Turning on my flashlight, I strolled up and asked them if they were looking for tunnels. They said they were, and asked me if I knew of any nearby entrances. I said sure.
Tunnel door
The blackout left the normally closed and alarmed tunnel doors usable.
       Leaving the building and strolling across the dark campus, we entered another nearby complex of buildings and made our way through several levels of hallways, stairways and skyways unhampered by surveillance cameras or motion-detecting lights. Descending to the basement, we pried open the door to a large, unlit mechanical room, where I shone my flashlight to reveal an entrance leading down to the tunnels.
       After trudging through the tunnels a bit and pushing our way through some doors with non-functioning alarms, several members of our party suggested we leave the tunnels for a bit in order to cool down and get some fresh air. Pushing open a nearby door we spilled out into a room filled with giant storage tanks, and from here climbed out to a public hallway dimly lit with emergency lights. We realized we were inside the Medical Sciences Building, the second largest building on campus and one of the most secure. Someone wondered what kind of view we might be able to get from the roof, and had scarcely finished asking before we began bounding up the stairs to find out.
Climbing to the hatch
When we came to a roof hatch on the sixth floor, I learned that the strangers I'd hooked up with were skilled climbers.
Open hatch
While we waited on the gravel ledge above the eighth floor, the lights all around us began to flicker back on.
The group
Soon enough, we were heading through a vast mechanical floor to the roof.
       The first roof hatch we came to was on the sixth floor; I assured my travelling companions that we could do better than this, but two of them were determined to check the hatch out. After some acrobatic climbing, they managed to hoist themselves through the hatch 12 feet up in the centre of the room and, even more impressively, to close the hatch behind them on the way back down. Comparing notes on rooftopping strategies, I learned that, although they'd never heard of infiltration or urban exploration, these newfound colleagues of mine weren't exactly novices. They'd managed to hoist themselves up and into a lot of interesting spots around campus just for the sake of satisfying their curiosity. They were explorers. Clearly, I'd stumbled upon the right people with whom to pursue the elusive roof of the Medical Sciences Building.
       Switching staircases, I led us up to the highest point of the building I knew how to access: a rickety wooden ladder leading to a roof hatch above the eighth floor. Climbing out onto a 30-square-foot gravel ledge, the six of us had a great view of the mostly dark and silent city, and of the bright, generator-powered rides at the not-yet-open Canadian National Exhibition flaunting their waste of electricity. We also surveyed the high concrete wall that separated our ledge from the top of the building. The decorative wall was filled with indentations, but the handholds and footholds seemed to be spaced far apart.
       The best climber in our group, a tall, skinny guy named Jeff, studied the 20-foot-high wall intensely for about three minutes before asking me for a boost. Wedging himself into a hollow about four feet up, Jeff somehow managed to pull and shove his way from ledge to ledge until he had made it to the top of the wall. He called down to us that he was looking out at a vast expanse of gravel roof that seemed to go on forever. We suggested that perhaps he should try to find an easier way down, and he liked that idea a lot more than he liked the idea of trying to climb back down the wall, so he headed off to explore.
       Meanwhile the rest of us waited on the ledge, looking out at the odd patches of light amid the darkened city, and wondering if there were other people out there doing what we were doing. Just then our conversation was cut off by loud clanking and whirring noises as the ventilation systems and air conditioners of the buildings all around us suddenly roared back to life and lights began to flicker on all across the campus. We crowded into the shadows and hoped no one could see us, and then fell silent as we heard noises coming from below. After a few very long seconds the roof hatch lifted open, and Jeff's smiling head popped out of it. He had indeed found another route, and he wanted to show it to us.
       Lowering ourselves back inside the now much brighter and noisier building, we switched stairwells again and headed to the top. Jeff had propped open a door to a service stairwell that took us up to an incredibly large floor filled with gorgeous, colourful machinery and ladders, catwalks and pipes shooting off in all directions. Bypassing all this for now, Jeff led the way up a steep staircase and out to another door he'd propped open.

Roof view
From the top of the Medical Sciences Building, we surveyed the city as it gradually flickered back to life.
       We emerged onto the gravel surface of the roof and saw that Jeff had not been exaggerating about its size. Gradually walking its circumference, we watched as the city below us gradually flickered back to life. Jeff recounted how he'd nearly died of a heart attack when all the machines in the mechanical room had suddenly roared to life around him while he'd been making his way back down to us in the darkness.
Radioactive chimneys
Shortly after I took this picture of the radioactive chimneys, a guy came out of the shadows toward us.
       After a long while, we headed inside and back down to the mechanical wonderland. We were examining a thick forest of insulated chimneys labelled "danger: radioactive" when out of the corner of my eye I noticed something moving in the shadows across the room. While the others kept excitedly talking, I turned and saw that a middle aged guy dressed in black was making his way towards us. He didn't look happy.
       "Someone's here," I said to the group, and their cheerful conversation died off immediately.
       "What are you doing up here?" the guy asked as he walked up to us.
       "Just looking around," I lamely volunteered.
       "How did you get in here?"
       "We just wandered through a couple of doors," Jeff replied.
       At this point the guy shook his head and reached for a cell phone in his pocket. Feeling that the situation was about to take a turn for the worse, I mumbled "I think we should leave" and began to walk away.
       "Don't move," the guy ordered, but I kept going. Behind me I heard him saying "Security, we have some intruders up here." I hopped into the nearby service elevator and looked out to see if anyone was going to join me, but as the elevator doors slid closed I saw that the group was heading for the stairs instead. Taking the service elevator down two floors, I hopped out and ran towards the noise I could hear coming from a nearby stairwell. Emerging into the stairwell a couple of flights behind the others, I began racing down the stairs after them, catching up with them just as we reached the ground floor. We spilled out into the night through a door that locked behind us.
       Only now did I notice that Jeff and one of the other guys weren't with us. "Where did they go?" I asked the girl.
       "I don't know... I think maybe they stayed up there," she replied. "Or maybe they took off a different way."
       "I sure hope they took off," I said, as the four of us began to wander back around to the front of the building.
       "I'll check," the girl said, pulling out her cell phone out and calling Jeff, who reported to her that they'd made it out and suggested that everyone meet up somewhere nearby.
       She'd just put her phone away when I spotted a campus cop walking toward us from the direction of the Medical Sciences Building. I suggested that everyone run for it, and yelled "good luck" into the air as we scattered in separate directions. I ran until my shaking legs were done running, and only as I continued home in the darkness did it occur to me that although I'd mentioned my zine, I'd never exchanged contact information with anyone. I hope they all made it home alive.
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