With that, the five-man squad starts to run. They all go by code names so their employers don't know that they regularly break the law. Youth Sonic, the point man, goes first. He's decked out in a blue Gore-Tex jacket and green cargo pants. Though he had long hair just a few weeks ago, it's now cropped high and tight. Everyone falls into formation, single file, behind him. PA Wolf the veteran of the crew is built like a track star and wears a backpack trimmed with reflective material. He has led expeditions like this from Colorado to Toronto to Minneapolis since 2002. Behind him is Gothstone, a short guy in a Dickies jumpsuit. Taking up the rear are Billionaire and KC Explorer, both in street clothes.
They're running away from their black Jetta, which they left in a parking lot near Bannister Mall. Each second means more time for some passer-by to question why a bunch of guys would be clad in survival gear in the middle of suburbia. As they trot down the winding, single-lane road, the whiz and roar from the intersection behind them disappears. Large trees and overgrown foliage line the roadside. Soon, the only sound is the hammering cadence of their bootsteps. These are the things they carry: three powerful headlamps, two flashlights, a GPS system, a few cell phones, a hydration pack and a camera. In case something breaks, Sonic shoulders a backpack stuffed with replacement gear.
Sonic spots a break in the overgrowth lining the road and motions toward it. They duck under the branches and slide past a chain-link fence that's been cut open and rolled back.
This follows a main tenet in urban exploring: They didn't cut the fence themselves; they can use it because it's already been severed. All five of them have sworn to uphold the sport's Boy Scout-like rules: Don't damage anything to enter buildings, don't take souvenirs, and leave no sign that you've been there.
Their code names are screen names from the Web site kcurbex.org, an urban-explorer networking site moderated by Sonic. The forum helps squads assemble to explore vacant buildings and unguarded construction sites. The site then details expeditions with photos and journals. They invited a Pitch reporter along, but the crew is adamant that the addresses of their explorations remain a secret and that they be identified only by their online monikers. "We try to keep a separation between who we are and what we do," Sonic says.
Beyond the open fence, the men hunker down and dash through a small clearing toward a rock wall. They spot a metal-framed doorway built into the face of a limestone cliff. The door leans ajar. Wordlessly, they slip inside. They click on their miner-style flashlights and survey the cave. Empty beer cans and a tipped-over shopping cart are visible on the dirt floor. Limestone walls rise on all sides like glacier faces. It's musty and barely lighted, like the inside of a tomb. They are in stealth mode. Being too loud can wake vagabonds, attract the attention of cops and security guards or, worse, cause cracked cave ceilings and walls to collapse.
Before the outing, Sonic researched the catacombs and discovered that they used to house an underground office park built in the 1980s. He says it once was home to various construction and craft companies. It was abandoned after a design flaw caused the cave to flood. Most access points were later dynamited to discourage looters and squatters.
To reach another room, the team squeezes through a hole in the limestone. They push back chicken wire that covers it and ignore the animal dung smeared on the opening. Inside the new room, the only light comes from the beams shot from their headlamps. Stagnant water has collected in what was once a traffic lane near a loading dock. It resembles a gaping Venetian thoroughfare. Past the water, the headlamps shine on a doorway. A few months ago, some team members crossed the river in an aluminum boat that someone had left down here. Now it's gone.
"Shit," someone mutters. The inflatable raft is back in the car.
Now they'll have to improvise. Sonic spots a pile of boards and cardboard boxes set up like a suspension bridge, the far end of which is underwater.
"Looks like someone tried to make a bridge," he says. He grabs a metal rod and plunges it into the water to measure the depth of the swill. It's groin height.
Explorer, the brashest of the crew, volunteers to go first. Without bothering to roll up the cuffs of his jeans, he steps straight onto the boards. They groan and creak. Halfway across, Explorer disappears into the darkness. That's when the rest of the team hears a splash.
"Whoo! Wow! That's what I call a spring morning shower! Oh, wow, that's cold!"
He wades past a drowned ventilation box and heaves himself onto the raised bank on the other side. The others follow him over the bridge and through the water. Soon, they're all on the other side of the lake, wet to their thighs and shivering.
"You motherfuckers. I'm shorter than you," shouts Gothstone, who has a water mark up to the crotch of his jumpsuit. "When I leaned left, it got wet," he says. He pulls out his leather wallet and notices that water has stained part of it green. No telling what it's done to his anatomy. He shudders.
This is their first stop of the day. On a recent Saturday, the crew will spend more than 12 hours scouring long-forgotten structures. They'll trespass through the cave, an abandoned theater, a grain silo and a sewer.
In recent years, urban exploring clubs have taken root in the bowels of major cities New York, Toronto, even London. There are guidebooks. The Discovery Channel produced a miniseries on the movement, and MTV's Fear ran a segment on the sport. Most of these clubs were formed online by bored nine-to-fivers. Kansas City, with abandoned buildings to spare, has become an urban explorer's playground.
KCUrbex.org has more than 200 members, including about 50 locals who are actively plotting how to develop new, secret clubhouses.
On Monday, this crew will return to the monotony of day jobs. Right now, they're here to answer one question: What are you willing to risk for a bit of adventure?
The doorway across the lake is another rabbit hole. It leads to an auditorium-sized room lined with more doorways that connect to a standard commercial complex of windowless offices. The men fan out through the labyrinth. Sprayed-on script covers the limestone-and-brick compound's walls, repping the Crips and white power. In the rooms, the team finds reminders of the cave's former occupants: an old Folgers can, a flattened paper Christmas tree with lights strung around it, an upturned stove. The cave looks like it was evacuated in a heartbeat.
Still dripping wet from his crotch down, Gothstone gazes at the rectangular panels of lights dangling from the ceiling above him. He approaches a breaker box on a wall. Sonic steps back. Gothstone starts flipping switches. Each clicks like a dry-firing pistol.
"One of these days, you are going to shock yourself," Sonic says.
"One of these days, the lights are going to come on, and it's going to be cool," Gothstone counters.
Sonic is a 26-year-old software engineer and IT consultant with a wife and 2-year-old son. As a kid, he explored the sewers in his hometown of Los Angeles. He skipped college and bootstrapped his way into the computer world. He was recruited in 2000 to work for a Kansas City firm. He spent the next three years scouting abandoned areas around the city but was too wary to enter alone. Finally, he stumbled across a generic Web-site meet-up group. Inspired, he started his own user-friendly site, KCUrbex.org. In the field, he often dictates orders, but the others joined this crew so that someone will watch their back, not control them.
Gothstone, 26, runs a computer store. Wolf, only recently old enough to drink, works for Gothstone. Billionaire, a project manager for a construction company, refuses to divulge his age, but he seems far more mature than his compatriots. He dates his interest in abandoned buildings to the mid-'80s, when he lived in New York. Explorer, 21, restores old cars.
Staying within earshot of one another, they continue to move through the compound. In an adjoining room, Wolf finds the missing aluminum boat bobbing in another deep pool of water. He forgets the need for stealth and loudly shouts, "We found the boat!"
"Should we launch it?" Sonic asks. He wants to see if the waterway leads back to the start of the maze.
"Let's keep going," Explorer says.
"There's more stuff back here," Wolf agrees. He finds a bathroom and pees in a toilet.
The crew enters a large dirt cavern with numbers marked on the columns; they figure it was once a parking garage. The ground is muddy, marked with animal footprints and hardened tire tracks. Dust fogs their flashlights in the stale air. Nobody is sure what kicked up the cloud, but it's common for potentially harmful carbon dioxide to gather in limestone caves. Or perhaps poisonous carbon monoxide, leaking from old machinery, has fouled the air.
Gothstone lights a smoke.
"You probably shouldn't smoke in here," Sonic says, nodding at the dust clouds.
"I don't know what that dust is, and I don't want to find out," Gothstone says, retreating to an unventilated room to keep puffing.
"We don't know how extensive this place is. Stick together," Sonic says. But Billionaire follows a wall away from the group and into the darkness.
"What do you see?" Sonic calls after him.
"I can't see the end of it," Billionaire calls back.
Billionaire and Wolf step over a huge shelf of rock. Above them, there's a hole in the ceiling with the same shape as the rock below them.
As they move deeper into the building, each room seems more unstable. A cracked ceiling drips water in a long corridor. The wall looks distended, like a dam about to break. The falling water has carved divots into the floor.
Fearing a collapse, Wolf ducks into a safer-looking room. Everyone else heads into another chamber with a low-slung ceiling that's split with large cracks. Large wooden support beams hold off collapse. While everyone skirts the area, Billionaire stands under the cracks to take a picture.
Sunlight breaches a patchwork of boards at the far side of the room. Sonic finds a hole that opens into the clearing that leads back to the car. Everyone agrees to evacuate here instead of backtracking underground.
Finally, Wolf rushes to join the others at the new exit. "He probably didn't want to die," Gothstone quips, just before they dash back toward the car.
The crew fortifies with a greasy meal at Chubby's on Broadway before heading to the southwest side of the city to attack a grain silo. It looks like a skinny high-rise glued to a row of circular grain storage tanks. They enter through a sliding metal door overgrown with weeds. Inside, they hit a second-story office. There are rows of desks on gray carpet and piles of documents that smell like old newspapers. It looks as though everyone just called in sick one day and then never came back. Wolf spots a wall calendar and deduces that the place has been a ghost town since September 2001. Explorer reclines in a desk chair and spots a roach. He figures the silo is now used as a roost by stoners. Gothstone finds some blueprints and rolls them open on a desk. They reveal that the silo is seven stories tall. The group decides to climb it.
The stairs stop at the sixth floor. There's a room off the stairwell with a hole in the floor where a vertical conveyor belt hoisted men quickly from floor to floor. In another corner, someone spots a metal ladder propped through a hole in the ceiling. A gap in the floorboards around the ladder opens to the room below. They step over the hole and climb upward one by one.
The seventh floor features an enclosed walkway with a conveyor belt that runs from the main building and over the massive grain storage tanks. It reeks of smoldering feces.
Billionaire kneels, lifts a round metal lid and drops a piece of scrap metal into the first storage tank. Four seconds pass before it hits bottom.
"This would have been fantastic to see in operation," Billionaire whispers.
They find a doorway in the main room that leads to a rusting fire escape: their passage to the roof.
"I'm sure this will hold for a day or two," Gothstone quips.
Fearing that one person falling off the ladder could cause them all to drop, they decide to ascend one by one. Explorer stands back from the door. He looks queasy. He tells Gothstone he'll stay below.
Up on top, Sonic, Wolf, Gothstone and Billionaire lounge among metal tubing that sticks out of the roof. To the north is a posterlike view of the city skyline.
Billionaire spots a metal-caged ladder that leads to an adjoining rooftop. Sonic races to join him.
"Where are you going? Goddamn it, you are not going to climb that before me," Sonic shouts playfully. Sonic grabs the rungs and climbs, calling back that the bolts of the ladder have loosened. One anchor at the top has completely rusted away. The ladder rises more than 20 feet and shakes in the blustery wind. Wolf and Billionaire follow, but Gothstone bows out, smoking a cigarette and feigning disinterest.
On the second rooftop, the guys find a small metal shack that looks like a lookout post. A ladder hangs from the edge of the perch and dangles over the rim of the silo.
At the top, the wind blows so fiercely that all three must sit on the grated floor to keep their balance. There's barely enough room to move. Someone gloatingly shouts for Gothstone to call them on a cell phone so they can chat.
"I've got that feeling in my nuts," Sonic says with bravado.
Billionaire scouts the skyline for more targets. Wolf nods. "That's what keeps you alive," he says.
Still waiting in the seventh-floor room, Explorer rejoins the group as they head back down. Nobody explains what they found on the roof, and Explorer doesn't ask.
To keep their high, the troop leaves the silo and heads downtown. They park near a roadblock and continue by foot toward their target: the Empire Theater.
Generally, urban explorers don't enter live construction sites. The risk of discovery and arrest for trespassing is too great. But they see this as their last shot to investigate the 85-year-old building.
Earlier this year, AMC Entertainment announced that by 2008, the derelict former vaudeville playhouse and movie theater, where Charlie Chaplin once performed, would be transformed into a $25 million multiplex called the Mainstreet Theatre. The urban commandos have made it a point to get an inside look at important buildings being replaced for the downtown renaissance. Like the former TWA Building and the old Jones Store before they were refurbished, the Empire Theater now tops their must-see list. They don't care who knows they've been there; after today, construction obstacles will thicken enough to prevent even the most expert marauders from entering.
Billionaire and Wolf got in first a few weeks ago when someone left a back door open for the weekend. The door was locked the next time they checked, so the explorers have put the building under surveillance, driving by in search of more entrances.
They approach from the southwest. Gothstone has shed his jumpsuit for a less-suspicious T-shirt and shorts. Sonic is so excited that he can't contain himself; he tugs on storm grates to see if there is an underground entrance. The building is ringed in plywood and looks impenetrable.
The team fans out along the building, pushing against the wood to see if anything gives. Wolf moves a manhole cover to check sewer access, but it's a 10-foot drop. More than five minutes pass plenty of time for someone to have called the cops.
Gothstone tugs hard at an old glass door covered in paper at the northeast corner. It swings open.
"Guess what I found?" he calls out proudly. In seconds, everyone is inside, flashlights on.
The day after a hard rain, massive puddles cover the floor. Oversized fans hum from the center of the room to dry out the building. It smells moldy and damp. There are no plush rows of seats or ornate marble refreshment counters. Staircases near the stage ascend into nothingness. The stage itself is just a framework of metal slats.
"As depressing as it is, at least they are doing something with it," Wolf says.
"This place is a shell," Sonic says.
"At the very least, they could have left the marble staircases for a few more years," Gothstone says. "I just can't believe this."
The antique projector they had previously spotted on an upper floor is missing, too.
"They are all gone. All that shit is gone. Probably sold it on eBay for $20,000," Sonic adds.
They spot the original scaffolding dangling above the main stage.
"We going up or what?" Explorer asks. He seems eager to redeem himself for not seeing the roof of the grain silo.
The crew ducks below wooden beams with placards that warn "danger." They step carefully around holes in the floor and climb to a small ledge above the balcony.
Gothstone spots a square of light behind him and discovers an old door that swings open onto a gravel rooftop.
To the north sits the rounded edge of the building's gothic dome. A tall tree grows on the rooftop, marking the time since the building was inhabited.
Back inside, Wolf warns against going farther. He says that the warning signs on the beams ahead must be posted for a reason.
"Come on," Billionaire says. "This is our last time to do this."
"Oh, absolutely," Sonic adds, following Billionaire as he ducks past another caution sign.
"I'm staying," Wolf calls after them. The rest of the team remains with Wolf. Billionaire and Sonic climb a gutted, narrow stairwell. They slosh through ankle-deep water that has pooled in the stairwell's landings.
The two men cross a creaky wooden stairway onto a catwalk without a guardrail. It's a straight drop about six stories down. Phosphorescent-orange construction paint glows below them. They climb another small ladder and step onto a rusty row of foot-wide metal cross beams with pulleys to shift scenery.
"There's no rigging," Sonic says, still following.
"Well, nothing to get in the way," Billionaire says as he gingerly steps across the beams.
"It's not too far down," Sonic adds sarcastically, looking at a thin line of orange fencing surrounding the stage below.
Both breathe heavily as they walk across the beams. They reach the other side of the building and decide that there's nothing more to test their nerves.
On the way back down, they pull the roof trapdoor shut and make sure that they haven't moved anything. The fans ensure that their footprints will evaporate by the time the weekday crews arrive back at work. Sonic slams a shoulder heavily into the glass door to make sure it shuts tightly.
Getting into the Empire has galvanized Sonic, and he convinces the group to head to the garage of a downtown loft building, which everyone knows should be accessed only at night. Inside the garage, in the floor of the bottom level, is a secret entrance to a 19th-century streetcar tunnel that shuttled people from downtown to the West Bottoms.
Sonic ignores a sign near the garage warning that visitors are being videotaped. But when they round the corner, they see a security guard striding quickly toward them. "You need to leave," the guard orders them.
Sonic tries to convince the security guard to give them a tour. The guard isn't going to give in, but Sonic's not ready to end the day.
"We've got time to do one more thing," he tells the group. "It will be quick."
They drive a couple of blocks north, near the City Market. The team huddles around a row of storm grates in the center of a parking lot just south of the market. It's dusk, and the reflective glass of the nearby Commerce Bank Building illuminates the lot. Streetlights have blinked on. The headlights of passing cars pan past the group like searchlights.
Wolf eyes the padlocked grates. He has learned that one of these slots opens by sliding horizontally, bypassing the lock.
Sonic pulls aside the grate. It scratches loudly against the pavement. His hands on either side of the hole, Wolf swings his feet toward a ladder.
"Go, go, go, go, go," Sonic commands in a hushed tone. Everyone follows in a tight line, descending into the darkness.
At the bottom, they step onto a floor covered in a greasy, gray mud. The room is well-lighted by listing fluorescent lamps hanging from the ceiling. The bunker has oversized pipes bandaged in white sleeves of what Sonic identifies as asbestos. A large box filled with pressure dials hangs on one wall. The musty room was once part of a larger steam system that helped heat downtown businesses. It still hums with activity, possibly providing heat to nearby buildings.
Sonic stares at a nearby wall. It has been spray-painted with the word "RECO." Below it, there's a set of red and black spray-paint cans and an October 2005 issue of Playboy scrawled with marker like an advertisement for Sonic's Web site: "KCURBEX."
The tag belongs to a trash-talking member of the forum. Sonic grabs a spray can and paints over the reference to his site. He's furious. The tag will show that people have figured out a way to get down here. "Homeless people trying to sleep here is a lot more acceptable than territorial pissing," he tells the group. He proclaims the worst punishment he can think of: He will remove RECO's access to the Web site as soon as he gets home.
Sonic corrals the group at the base of the ladder. In formation, they climb back toward the street. Gunk caked to their boots ends up on the rungs of the ladder. All but the first in line end up with sewer slime on their hands.
They emerge from their informal clubhouse and slide their secret door back behind them. Wet, dirty and splattered with mud, they smile like children who have spent the day getting into trouble.
Sonic asks for company at his usual post-op celebration spot: Murray's in Westport. "Who wants to go get ice cream?"