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Toronto Urban Legends: Jumping Into Infamy

Did a steelworker really parachute from the CN Tower?

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/phillykevflicks/183947496/"}kchbrown{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

For $175 you can venture up the CN Tower, get harnessed into a bulky, red jumpsuit attached to a safety track and take a 20-minute walk on a steel gangplank hundreds of metres above Toronto. They’ll even throw in a DVD recording of the entire acrophobia-inducing experience.

Been there, done that?

How about ditching the jumpsuit, the harness, and all common sense, and instead stowing a parachute in a garbage bag, climbing another 90 metres to the Space Deck by means of a ladder pitched on the roof of the CN Tower restaurant, shimmying across the boom of a construction crane, and jumping down to earth?

A harebrained scheme like that just isn’t possible. Or is it?

In the autumn of 1974, when the CN Tower was only halfway completed, steelworker William Eustace did precisely that. The reckless stunt cost him his job—and, nearly, his life. For his efforts, Eustace (“Sweet William” to friends) became the only person in history to make an unauthorized leap from the tower’s concrete antenna. (There was later an authorized one, by stuntman Dar Robinson, in 1980.)

The feat may not have been as out there as this, but Eustace’s name—for a brief time, anyway—became legendary.

There was once a time when steelworkers had a reputation for acts of derring-do and seeming recklessness. Photographs from when the CN Tower was under construction show labourers poised on steel girders, hundreds of metres above the ground, sans safety belts. When Sweet William pledged to co-workers he would parachute from the tower before its completion, his claim barely raised eyebrows.

Making the claim was one thing; following through was another entirely. Access to the crane was a problem. Not all employees were allowed up to that level of the structure. One thing working in Eustace’s favor was that he was on friendly terms with one of the tower’s two crane operators, Winston Young. The two men had parachuted together in the past.

Not much is known about Eustace except that he was originally from Newfoundland. He settled in Toronto in 1962, and found work in the construction trade. Previously, he had done a four-year stint in the Canadian Armed Forces, where he learned to parachute. Upon leaving the service, he continued jumping recreationally.

Eustace started on the CN Tower site when construction began in 1973, earning $8.01 an hour as a signalman. Using a walkie-talkie, he was responsible for communicating lift instructions to the crane operator. About 18 months after the structure began to rise above the Toronto skyline, Eustace had tired of the job. Besides disliking his work and bosses, he had also clashed with some co-workers. Instead of simply up and quitting, he devised a far more dramatic exit strategy.

The forecast for Friday, November 8, 1974, promised clear skies and above-seasonal temperatures. Those were ideal jumping conditions. To avoid fellow workers being implicated as co-conspirators, Eustace didn’t share final details of his plan with anyone. At noon, he placed two garbage bags into the bucket of the crane. They contained a brown-and-green silk chute, as well as a motorcycle helmet emblazoned with a maple leaf.

Eustace waited until the afternoon shift change before making his next move. A temporary hoist carried him up the central shaft of the tower to the Sky Pod level, where his gear awaited him. Helmet and chute donned, he climbed a series of ladders, some inside and others outside the tower, until he reached the crane at about the 450-metre point.

As anticipated, the crane’s cab was unoccupied. Facing strong autumn gusts, Eustace shimmied across the crane’s latticed boom. There was no turning back. He connected the parachute’s static line to the crane’s rigging. Balancing himself, he stood, taking in the unobstructed view. He later told reporters, “It felt so beautiful.… It was a great feeling.”

Sweet William Eustace stepped off the crane.

The static line opened the chute immediately. Wind gusts pushed Eustace directly toward the Sky Pod below, where a bundle of live high-voltage power lines protruded. Relying on years of jumping instinct, Eustace avoided electrocution.

Descent was swift. Having avoided smacking into the tower itself, Eustace still had to deal with other hazards, one of which was slamming into lower structures. Avoiding vehicle and train traffic was also a concern. Miraculously, he made a soft landing in a mound of soil hundreds of metres east of the tower’s base, near Front Street.

Wide-eyed pedestrians couldn’t believe what they had witnessed. Few photographs of the infamous descent are known to exist.

Still sporting his dive equipment, Eustace gathered the silk parachute, bunching it under his arm. He hiked to the nearby construction trailer, were he was promptly dismissed.

Sweet William hadn’t prepared for what happened next. Because he hadn’t sought permission to make the jump, he was changed under the federal Aeronautics Act for illegally parachuting in a built-up area, in controlled airspace.

The charge was serious. Eustace faced as many as six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. In the end, his punishment wasn’t too serve. A judge ordered him to pay a fine of $50. He walked away a free man.

For an individual who survived a leap from what was then the highest freestanding structure in the world, Eustace appears today to have fallen off the face of the earth. Where is he now? This musical tribute dedicated to his jump seeks the same answer.

Contacted in Sugarloaf, Newfoundland, relatives of Eustace could not say where he is, or whether he’s still alive. All that is known is that on an autumn afternoon 38 years ago, for not too much longer than the duration of his descent, Sweet William Eustace become a legendary figure.

Additional material from the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, November 9, 1974. Side image from the Toronto Star.

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