Parachute Not Included

The WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) transmission tower soars exactly 1767 feet into the sky over South Dade. That's 313 feet higher than the Sears Tower, the hemisphere's tallest building. Nearly one-and-a-half times the height of the Empire State Building. Or, to apply local architectural measuring sticks, two First Union Financial Centers stacked atop the Freedom Tower.

One of several cloud-tickling towers around Dade, the structure is the tallest in South Florida. It's made of steel and shaped like a splinter; two men standing side by side with their arms outstretched can span the framework, which tapers at its base and is sunk into 30 feet of cement. Dozens of steel cables act as stays, providing additional support. (Not that any of this was enough to withstand Hurricane Andrew, which plucked the tower like a weed and dashed it to the ground, necessitating a complete replacement.) Besides beaming the visage of Jennifer Valoppi into space, the prodigious tower is leased to businesses as diverse as digital pager companies and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which attach satellite dishes at various heights.

"I think it's called parallax," says Don Greene, standing near the base of the tower at SW 248th Street and SW 172nd Avenue. Greene, a Metro-Dade elevator inspector, is bending his plump torso backward, hands on hips for balance, and squinting upward. "You look at it from here and it doesn't look very high. But once you get up there, you say, 'Gee, it's a different story!'"

Greene knows. In order to facilitate repairs, the tower contains a small elevator that runs up its middle. The 64-year-old inspector Greene's territory covers Bay Harbor Islands, Key Biscayne, and everything from Sunset Drive south to the Homestead city limits. So the duty to check that the tower's elevator is fully functional falls to him -- once a year.

For the occasion, Greene wears a cheery madras shirt and a jolly white sun hat. Equipped with a radio-frequency monitor that will sound if he encounters unsafe electromagnetic levels, he steps into the elevator, a cramped metal container with perforated walls and a sliding, accordion gate.

The elevator begins to climb, at the leisurely pace of 85 feet per minute -- less than one-tenth as fast as one would ascend in a modern skyscraper. "It's going to take us twenty minutes to get to the top, so don't get nervous," the inspector suggests. The sensation of being at the top isn't a whole lot different than being a third of the way up, he adds.

Greene joined the Metro-Dade inspection crew three and a half years ago, after spending 32 years working for private elevator companies. A former welder from Long Island, he moved to South Florida in the Sixties and was looking for work when a parishioner at his church suggested he try the elevator business. "Now, who would ever think about doing that?" he remembers thinking at the time. "I mean, you ride 'em, you don't build 'em."

Suddenly the elevator begins to jerk spasmodically. Greene looks around. "Shouldn't be slack," he says, his expression not exactly one of reassurance, before the elevator regains its equilibrium.

At a few hundred feet, the flat expanse of South Dade rolls out below: farmland to the west, south, and east, and to the north, housing developments. Way off on the horizon, downtown Miami rises out of the haze like the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, only much dirtier.

"I like this section of the county," Greene says. "You can see it much better from here. You can see all the farmland." He rides in silence for a while, the compartment's grinding and creaking the only sounds. Again, about halfway up, the car starts to bounce disconcertingly. "I don't know why it's doing that A maybe it's losing traction," Greene posits. Later he'll write up the problem as "intermittent interruption of power to the main controller."

It's said that two DEA agents once got stuck in this elevator when the motor burned out while they were descending after tuning a transmitter. Because one of the agents had a bum leg and was incapable of climbing, the pair remained stranded as night fell, huddling together for warmth in the thin air. Meanwhile, maintenance men on the ground improvised a rescue by using an industrial drill to manually lower the elevator. It took an hour and a half to crank them down.

At the top, Greene steps out onto a metal platform. The lightest of mists enwreathes the tower. A light wind whistles through the steel structure, and the air crackles with static electricity generated by an approaching storm. From here you can see a vast disc of a panorama, from far out in the Atlantic Ocean to the upper reaches of the Florida Keys, around to Florida Bay, deep into the green expanse of Everglades National Park, and north as far as Miami International Airport and beyond. Down below, cars are bugs, humans pinpoints. Mount Trashmore is a pimple on the planet's face.

But what Greene said is also true: With no variation in topography and no nearby tall structures to provide context, it feels a lot like it did 1000 feet down. The houses looked small at 500 feet, and now they're really small.

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