Twin Tower Parachuter
Owen Quinn had a hard go of it from the start. He was born into poverty. At age five he had to leave his family and live for six years in an orphanage because his mother was ill. By the time he was a teenager he looked like he would wind up just another Bronx juvenile delinquent.
But somehow he managed to pull himself out of it; like Jimmy Cagney in White Heat, he knew one day he'd be able to yell out, "Top of the world, Ma." He might not have made it to the top of the world, but he did make it to the top of New York City. He was the first person ever to parachute off of the World Trade Center.
When I talked with Quinn recently he told me he was born in 1941 and lived with his family in the South Bronx at 138th St. and Willis Ave. His first memories are of how it all got bad very quick.
"My mother got real sick. She had a long hospitalization. There was no money in our house and my father couldn't take care of the kids?there was three of us. Me and my younger sister had to go live in a home for orphaned children up in the North Bronx for six years. After that my mother got better and my father moved us up to Ogden Ave. in Highbridge and we were all together again. But I was a wayward kid by then. Highbridge was filled with all of these Old World Irish Catholic families that had 11 and 12 kids, so I had plenty of company when I ran the streets. We were like the Bowery Boys. I knew the street and I knew I had to get in trouble."
Quinn likes talking about the old days. At 61 he's a happy, retired grandfather, living out on the eastern end of Long Island. But in the 1950s he was sick of high school and knew he had to get to work to stay out of trouble.
"I went to two different high schools and I just didn't like school. It wasn't for me. It didn't pay. I was headed for some real trouble, so I knew I had to get out there and work with my hands."
At 15 Quinn went to work at day labor jobs. At 19 he joined up with the Merchant Marine. It changed his life.
"I found my niche on the water. I loved it. I sailed around the world twice. I met my wife in 1962 in Keenesberg, NJ, after sailing back from India."
Quinn has been married for 36 years. When his memory goes rusty on dates he turns to his wife, Roseann, and asks, because she knows everything he has done for those years.
In 1964 he went to a local air strip to go parachuting. "It was just a curiosity. I just wanted to jump out of a plane. When I did it I loved it. I thought, when I die this is what I want to be doing."
In 1966 he volunteered for a tour of duty with the Merchant navy in Vietnam.
"We delivered all the ammunition. I volunteered for a second tour, and then I was done. I knew if I did one more tour I would be doing that for the rest of my life, and I didn't want that... My first child was born, so I decided to settle down and just do construction. I went back to work with a pick and shovel as a day laborer."
A friend got him a better job with the dock builders' union, and Quinn wound up working on the World Trade Center.
"We were putting in these huge caissons that we drove into the bedrock and then put steel into them, for the plaza in front of the buildings."
As the complex slowly went up Quinn spied a scale model in the lobby of the South Tower. He didn't just see New York's tallest buildings, he saw a 1200-foot drop with no obstructions.
"I had jumped out of planes lower than 1200. I studied the model and said to myself, 'I could jump this.' I went to a bunch of guys on my skydiving team and told them I planned to jump off one of the Twin Towers and asked what they thought. Some thought it could be done, others said it was too dangerous."
By the early 1970s Quinn had more than 850 jumps behind him. He had done stunt work on the weekends for air shows, and he had his jump-master license. For two years he watched and waited as the buildings neared completion. In July of 1975 he knew it was time to go.
On July 22, 1975, Quinn and a friend, Mike Sergio, who 11 years later made skydiving fame when he parachuted into Shea Stadium during the 1986 World Series, met in the plaza of the World Trade Center. They dressed like construction workers and hid the parachute in a duffel bag with tools on top. No one stopped them as they worked their way up to the top of the North Tower.
"I planned to jump the North Tower?the one with the antenna on top?because the observation deck was on the other one."
Quinn and Sergio got one floor from the roof when they were met by a security guard. With some slick talking Sergio distracted the guard while Quinn sneaked up to the roof and put his parachute on. Sergio met him a few minutes later and pulled his camera out to record the event.
"The roof of the towers had an angle, so I had to clear that. I stepped back about 15 feet and ran fast right to the end. I dove off and cleared the building."
Sergio shot Quinn jumping off the tower. Quinn calls the photo The Point of No Return.
"It was a rush. As I went down I was laughing all the way. I was in my realm. I knew it would be all right because I had packed the chute."
Quinn flew by windows filled with office workers. They screamed and called the cops, saying that a man just committed suicide. Quinn used the AT&T building across the way as a point of reference: he knew he had to fall 60 stories before he pulled the cord.
"I opened the chute and the next thing I knew I was floating along looking into the window at a secretary. Her mouth just dropped open. I turned into the building and used it as a buffer against the river wind. When I landed the cops were on me like white on snow."
He was taken to a psychiatrist at Elmhurst Hospital, then to another at St. Vincent's. He was judged a sane man and brought to the precinct to be booked. When he got to the station scores of journalists ran after him and the arresting officers to get a quote. NYPD had no idea what to charge him with. They settled on trespassing, disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment. Over the next 12 months Quinn made 19 court appearances. In the end the whole thing was thrown out of court.
I ask Quinn if he ever wanted to jump the tower again.
"No! No! Been there done that. Once was enough," he laughs.
Quinn continued skydiving with teams; he even did some barnstorming, walking out on the wings of planes. Still dockworking during the week, at nights he was with his growing family and on weekends he traveled the country putting on shows. Twelve years ago Quinn was injured on the job and forced into early retirement. He and Roseann moved out to the eastern reaches of Long Island to be near their grandkids. Now the only thrill Quinn looks for is when he goes out hunting and fishing. He's come a long way from the alleys of Highbridge.
I ask Quinn how he felt about the Sept. 11 attack.
"The only feeling I had was a sadness for all those families who had someone trapped under that rubble. It wasn't about me or the building I jumped off, it was about the people killed. For a week I walked around in a void. We lost 17 guys from the dockworkers' union."
Like everyone else, Quinn has his memories of the Twin Towers. But his memories are unique.
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