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Lee "Skypunk" Werling Dies In Fall From TV Tower

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BITHLO -- Carrying parachutes, the three men hopped the fence surrounding the television tower in rural east Orange County early Thursday and rode the elevator 1,682 feet to the top. Then, simultaneously, they jumped from the steel girders to the fog-shrouded cow pasture below.


At six seconds, the first chute opened. The second chute opened two seconds later.

But Timothy Lee Werling II, who friends told police was addicted to danger, waited a fatal 11 seconds before pulling the cord and plunged to his death at 172 feet per second.

As Werling, 30, fell, the video camera strapped to his helmet recorded his final jump.

"If he had even pulled it at 10 seconds, he probably would have survived," Orange County Sheriff's Detective Rick Lallement said.

Two other men took part in the pre-dawn adventure -- one jumping from a lower platform 1,000 feet from the ground and the other deciding at the last moment not to jump.

Werling, who moved to DeLand recently from Ohio, was known as "Sky Punk" for his daring exploits. He had made 600 jumps off towers, cliffs and bridges as part of the extreme sport known as BASE jumping.

"When you have a son that lives for the adrenaline of BASE jumping, you sort of expect it," Timothy Werling, 57, said in a telephone interview Thursday from his home in the Cincinnati suburb of West Chester, shortly after learning of his son's death. ". . . He died doing the thing he loved."

The cluster of television masts near Bithlo has become popular with BASE jumpers -- an acronym for buildings, antennae, spans and earth. Mountain Dew even filmed a television commercial for the soft drink, showing jumpers leaping from one of the towers.

Werling's friends told Lallement that he was the kind of jumper who pushed his jumps to the limit.

"They're cocky," Lallement said. "They're big-time thrill seekers. Jumping out of an airplane isn't enough."

One of the group called 911 shortly after 7 a.m. to report Werling's death. Werling apparently died an hour earlier.

"He's dead," the caller told the emergency operator. "Impact injuries. High speed to the ground."

Police said that Werling's friends, whom they did not identify, went some distance to a pay phone at a convenience store to make the call reporting his death.

By all accounts, Werling was an experienced sky diver and BASE jumper. Investigators at the scene found a picture of Werling at the New River Gorge in West Virginia. That spot is so popular it is closed annually so jumpers can use it exclusively.

SkyPunk Rodeo Bridge Day

Passion for jumping

Werling apparently moved to Central Florida to indulge in his passion for jumping year-round.

He lived in a one-bedroom apartment in north DeLand, where his landlady remembered him as a "well-spirited" person. He worked as an administrative assistant at Skydive DeLand, a popular sky-diving operation.

"I'm very sad," said Mike Johnston, Skydive DeLand's general manager. "He was pretty exuberant and passionate about life."

To veteran parachutists, BASE jumping is a perilous version of their sport but draws many seasoned sky divers because of its daredevil stunts and increased rush from jumping at lower altitudes.

"It's popular. I've never made a BASE jump," said Brian Erler, a sky-diving cameraman who works at Skydive Space Center in Titusville. "Depending on the altitude, it's total acceleration. I'm sure it's pretty intense."

Unlike skydiving, where parachutes open at 2,500 feet after sky divers jump from airplanes at 15,000 feet, BASE jumpers leap from lower heights and have far less time to open their parachutes.

Seconds to spare

A few seconds is all BASE jumpers have, but skydivers can have more than a minute before pulling open their parachutes. Unofficial counts put the number of BASE-jumping deaths worldwide at 40. There are an estimated 10,000 active BASE jumpers.

Because the sport sometimes requires its participants to trespass on private property, jumpers often avoid authorities.

"This is a big organization that does this stuff," sheriff's spokesman Carlos Torres said. "It's a common sport. But in Orange County, this is the first documented [BASE-jumping death] we have had."

That is not to say jumpers have been avoiding the area.

Lallement said the Sheriff's Office had spotted at least eight jumpers in the area on three separate occasions during the past few months.

John Stargel, vice president and general counsel for Tampa-based Richland Towers Inc., the parent company for the tower, said the company will review its policies in the wake of the incident.

"The tower is fenced. We have security in place," Stargel said. "But if someone is intent on breaching our security, there's only so much you can do to keep somebody from putting themselves in harm's way."

Lallement had little tolerance for the BASE jumpers who trespass to get to their jump-off points. In this case, the jumpers violated federal law because the location is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

~ Orlando Sentinel



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