Urban Explorers Map Out Florida's Weirdest Abandoned Sites

David Bulit crawls through a rusted metal hatch and shines a flashlight down a long, dark, and waterlogged silo. The light glints off a mammoth cylindrical object: the casing for an AJ-260-2 motor, one of the largest rockets ever built.

For 25 years, the monstrosity has lain dormant under a huge slab of steel beneath the floor of an empty warehouse. Getting here isn't easy. The dilapidated building, surrounded by miles of rusty fence, lies five miles down an abandoned road on the edge of the Everglades. Few people left in Dade still remember when the Aerojet-Dade rocket facility churned out cutting-edge Cold War technology that rattled windows all the way to Biscayne Bay during test firings.

But Bulit and his crew know all about it. They've explored the site scores of times, risking arrest, asbestos exposure, and fights with drugged-out metal scrappers.

"People will always ask, 'You walked miles into the Everglades to see a hunk of metal?' or 'Why would you go into a place like that?'" says Bulit, a slight, agile 23-year-old from Hialeah. "But I've seen things with my own eyes that people will never see."

For folks like Bulit, the Aerojet facility is the Holy Grail: a fascinating, dangerous place that's alive with skin-crawling history. Around the world, thousands like him are part of a subculture of adventurers called urban explorers — or "urb exers" — whose obsession is infiltrating forgotten places and documenting what they find.

Bulit and his ilk have explored dozens of Miami-Dade sites — from trashed hospitals to waterlogged missile silos — and posted photos and stories on their website, AbandonedFL.com. The group is small but growing, in part because a local pioneer named Shane Perez gained national attention by starring in a documentary about the hobby and by sparking international headlines for getting banned from Disney World after exploring an abandoned theme park.

Like most Urb Exers, Bulit and his crew never force their way into buildings. Instead, they look for open or missing doors or windows at abandoned sites. They also never vandalize property, because they say their aim is to explore and document what they see.

Police and some historians condemn explorers like Perez and Bulit for flouting the law and trampling potentially historic sites. "I think where we draw the line is actually entering a place," says Paul George, a historian at HistoryMiami.

But for urban explorers, it's the only way to live. "I don't really live a conventional life," Perez says. "I've always been into it and had a kind of disregard for established things."

As long as cities have locked up their forgotten corners, curious souls have risked life and limb to traverse them. According to the blog Infiltration, many consider the first urb exer to be a Frenchman named Philibert Aspairt, who became posthumously famous in 1793 when his body was discovered 11 years after he got lost while charting underground Parisian catacombs by candlelight. One hundred 20 years later, Walt Whitman wrote about exploring shuttered New York subway tunnels.

Modern urb exing might have begun in Australia, where spelunkers expanded from caves into Sydney's drainage systems.

Shane Perez had never heard of the movement when, as a teenager attending West Kendall's G. Holmes Braddock High School, he began "phone phreaking," the proto-hacking fad of stealing free calls by copying AT&T long-distance codes. Perez — a restless adrenaline junkie — would hack phone boxes in remote areas. Once, while looking for a phone box, he explored an abandoned, graffiti-streaked former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service facility on Krome Avenue that locals had nicknamed "the Asylum."

Perez was fascinated by what he found. He returned to take photographs of the crumbling walls and began researching, soon learning that the site once housed a Nike missile-launching facility built after the Cuban Missile Crisis and later served as a clandestine CIA communications hub.

"I was like, Wow, that's much more interesting than an insane asylum," Perez says.

In the mid-'90s, urb exing was generally unknown in Miami, but Perez discovered he wasn't alone. By 1996, the movement was taking off online via message boards such as Infiltration.org.

Unlike Northeast and Midwest towns packed with forgotten factories and theaters, the more recently developed Miami isn't a natural hotbed for urban exploration. But Perez quickly realized there was no less forgotten history to mine in the Magic City than in Philly or Detroit.

By the time he was in his early 20s, he and a small, dedicated crew were regularly trespassing on a range of fascinating, forgotten Miami sites: Marine Stadium on Virginia Key, the Aerojet facility, Everglades missile silos.

Perez soon became famous well beyond Miami's urb ex scene. In April 2007, he and three friends swam 400 feet under the cover of dark, using waterproof bags as flotation devices, to Discovery Island, a Disney wildlife attraction in Bay Lake, Florida, that was shut down in 1999. They canvassed the park, photographing overgrown pathways and eerie shuttered stands. Two young vultures were nesting in an empty building; in a storage shed, they found an odd cache of snakes preserved in formaldehyde.

"It was a very real place, definitely not a Disney attraction," Perez says. "Disney left it to go wild, and it certainly did."

Days after his photos were posted, they were spotted by a Disney fan site, which notified the company. In one day, Perez's web traffic shot up to more than 80,000 hits. NBC affiliate WESH in Orlando reported the incident, and Disney reportedly responded by banning Perez from all of its property for life.

Perez and his friends laughed it off — in part because they knew getting banned from a theme park is the least of an urb exer's worries. Besides arrest and incarceration for trespassing, death is a real possibility. Earlier that year, a 23-year-old urban explorer in Denver named Johnny Polzin had died after plunging down an elevator shaft in an abandoned rubber factory.

Perez admits his friends and family worried constantly. Once in 2009, Perez sprained his ankle while rappelling down a shaft in a New York aqueduct during a solo trip. Unable to get out, he had to call friends for help.

Other Miami urb exers have run into "scrappers" — scrap-metal-jacking thieves high on drugs, often armed with knives and other weapons. Robert Canas, 42, a Miami resident who goes by his online name, "RobTech," remembers an incident during a trip to an abandoned church in Coconut Grove where he encountered a lone scrapper looking disheveled, high, and ready to either fight or bolt. Canas was freaked out, but held his ground until the scrapper left.

"If you show these people that you're scared, you sort of get manhandled," Canas says.

Heather McTiernan, Perez's ex-girlfriend and former urb exing partner, says she suspects that without the danger — and without the adrenaline — urb exers wouldn't be as passionate about their hobby. She was once almost arrested with Perez while checking out an old power plant. Thanks to his smooth talking, police eventually let them slide.

"What really, really helped was that Shane is very exuberant," she says.

Dangerous or not, urb exing doesn't look to be going away. Reality shows such as Urban Explorers on Discovery and Fear on MTV feature the hobby. Perez has his own starring scene in the rising subculture. Melody Gilbert's 2007 film, Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness, follows the lives of a handful of urban explorers across the country, including Perez. One scene shows him climbing into the missile silo and posing for the camera.

Perez has since left Miami for New York City, but the local scene has found new adherents. "Bullet," as Bulit calls himself online, is the main writer, researcher, and administrator for AbandonedFL.com, along with his friend E.J. Walsh. In all, at least a dozen locals are regular urb exers and many more are semiregulars. The crew has steadily added to the list of explored sites. Inside the "Big Easy," a massive yacht outfitted as a casino but left derelict in a Tampa dry dock after Hurricane Wilma, the crew found dusty chandeliers made of Mardi Gras beads and dead slot machines; at Jungleland Zoo, a deserted animal park near Kissimmee, they photographed themselves with discarded "Animals May Bite" signs.

Bulit agreed to take a New Times reporter with him on his most recent trespassing exploration into the Aerojet plant. Getting there was tedious — first a long drive through rural South Dade and then a long hike down a paved road. But decades after the plant closed in the late '60s, there's not much in the way of security; fences have long since rusted into the marshy ground.

Inside, the once-cutting-edge buildings are tagged with obscene graffiti; every metal bit has been stripped away by looters. It's a desolate scene. But to guys like Bulit, that's the point.

"That's part of the thrill of it," he says. "It's serious and it's edgy and it's exciting."