Legends of the Fall

In Miami's jungle of condo towers, 16 people have jumped to their deaths.

Fred and Ceil Feldman sat down for coffee and toast inside their snug beachside condo just before 8 a.m. From their kitchen table, on the sixth floor, the elderly couple gazed in comfortable silence at the ocean. Life hadn't yet begun to buzz at Sands Pointe Condominium. Only white lounge chairs occupied the pool deck outside their door. Even the palm trees below, with their downturned fronds, looked sleepy.

Then there was a strange and heavy thump.

Fred set his mug down and stood up. "I thought a picture had fallen off the wall," he remembers.

Through the glass door, he caught a glimpse of a figure on his patio. It looked like a woman lying down. He walked closer and found a fair-skinned, 89-pound brunette face-down and limp. She wore pajamas with matching slippers. Near her head, blood formed a puddle on the cool concrete. Fred knew immediately: She was dead.

Her name was Khinna, and she had fallen from the sky. Or, more precisely, she had taken a dose of morphine, stood on a lawn chair, and jumped from her 24th-floor balcony. She was a 61-year-old terminal cancer patient. She had landed four feet from the Feldmans' patio door.

"Her body splattered everywhere," Ceil recalls with a deep breath. "She had to be removed piece by piece."

Fred paced around, trying to be a good decision maker. What do I do? Who do I call? My God, what are the odds? he thought. Ceil's blood pressure dropped so low she nearly fainted. She had to close her pretty brown eyes. In the distance, the pool glistened in the Florida sunshine.

Cops and firefighters arrived within minutes at the Sunny Isles Beach condo on that October morning in 2007. To them, the scene was nothing new: just another jumper.

Some cities have fabled bridges where the hopeless go to end it all. Others have eerie cliffs where bodies plunge into rocky canyons. In Miami-Dade, the suicidal have found their own vehicle for death: posh, shining, and often brand-new condo towers. Since the condo boom of 2007, at least 16 people have thrown themselves from the bright, private high-rises. In the past two years, the towers — which include the 1800 Club, Opera Tower, and Mirador — have hosted more jumpers than any other type of structure in the county.

Miami's 16 are of all ages, races, and backgrounds. Mental illness is the common thread. They include a lonesome millionaire, a gorgeous sorority girl, and a gay bartender who survived for hours after his leap. Their stories speak to what pulls a person to the ledge, the mysteries they leave behind, and the lives touched by their last fall.

It makes sense that the towers — which boast ocean-sunrise views like those in paintings — have attracted jumpers. The more mystique a place has, the more likely it will become a suicide spot, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (The Golden Gate Bridge, for example, has tallied an average of one victim every two weeks.) Most of the time, jumpers romanticize what will happen after they step over the edge. They believe they will hit the ground, die cleanly and quickly, and then be transported to a better place.

The truth is more disturbing. The Miami-Dade victims landed at 30 to 75 miles per hour — a death comparable to stepping in front of a speeding bus. Vertebrae snap. Lungs fill with blood. Skulls crack like eggs. The medical examiner's office has a name for it: "multiple blunt force injuries."

Although suicide takes more lives than homicide in America, the media has an awkward relationship with the sensitive subject. In Miami, not one of the jumps was reported in the news, although they take place in highly visible buildings, where hundreds of people live. It's understandable. Journalists have to ask themselves tough questions about privacy and social responsibility when covering these events. (One suicide prevention advocate told New Times that Golden Gate Bridge suicides are "the fault of the press for making something out of it.") So the subject is generally ignored.

There are no easy answers, says Dr. Paula Clayton of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "In other cities, we lobby for restrictions on bridges like nets and guard rails. How you do that in Miami, I have no idea."

It would be unfair to blame the developers, says Toni Pacelli-Hinkley, executive vice president of the Builders Association of South Florida. "I don't think it's a building trend — at least I certainly hope not," she says. "If someone is determined to take their own life, they'll find another vehicle to use."

What follows are the stories of the 16 dead as told by public records, loved ones, and witnesses. In some cases, identifying details and the names of surviving family members have been changed.

Felipe

January 30, 2007

5:34 p.m., Island Shores

Felipe, a sad-eyed maintenance man at the Eden Roc Hotel, had tried it once before with heart medication. The overdose didn't work, so the 53-year-old climbed to the top of the 11-story, Easter-egg-yellow Island Shores. He gazed toward Maule Lake and then threw himself over the edge. A stranger was driving down NE 163rd Street when he saw Felipe's 140-pound body smash onto the pavement.

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