Might As Well Jump | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Might As Well Jump

Armed with a hot pink parachute, an insurance broker considers his risks.

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Not long after September 11 a Michigan aircraft manufacturer named John Rivers began appearing in newspapers and on television touting the Executivechute, a parachute designed for jumpy high-rise dwellers. Billed as the "Life Preserver of the Sky," the device, Rivers said, was developed many months before, in response to an odd request from a Chicago insurance executive. Rivers ultimately decided there wasn't a demand for the product in those carefree days, but the ghastly spectacle of World Trade Center workers leaping to their deaths has since inspired a clamorous market, and that insurance broker, John Larkin, was first in line.

The 36-year-old Larkin, who'd still be flying light aircraft for fun if his wife would let him, says he met Rivers on a cold call about a year ago and wound up handling insurance policies for customers of Rivers's powered parachute--sort of a dune buggy of the sky. The two became pals and spent a lot of time kicking around different ideas. The company Larkin works for, JMB Insurance Agency, sells a lot of policies for high-rise buildings, and he says his own memories of the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, which took 85 lives, prompted his suggestion.

In his windowless 12th-floor office at 900 N. Michigan, Larkin recalls their momentous meeting differently than Rivers. In this story, Rivers already had the chute before Larkin asked for it. "He goes, 'Well, we have a design and unfortunately there's not a market for it.' I started saying, 'I really think you should do this. You'll make a million dollars.' So I think I focused him in the way I thought it should be. I said, 'I think you really should, because I really feel that no one has a way to get out of these buildings.' And it's just kind of a natural progression from me being up high. I kept thinking, 'How would I get out if there was a problem?'"

On September 12, Larkin says, Rivers called him, "and he goes, 'I'm sick to my stomach. I'm so mad. This didn't have to happen. Some people could have been saved.'" Larkin was angry too. "There are like 150 people who jumped out of the building, knowing that they were gonna die. That's unacceptable. I said, 'Do everything you can do to bring this to market.' And he goes, 'I know.'"

Rivers dropped off Larkin's chute about two and a half weeks ago, and that's when he began entertaining the media in earnest. Reporters have reacted to the sudden availability of the $795 Executivechute with varying degrees of skepticism. In some stories Rivers comes off as a bit of a fear merchant, though he tries to defend his product against the theoretical wild winds, bad landings, and flaming updrafts an egressing executive might encounter on the way down. It didn't help that Rivers hadn't jumped with one yet. The only tests have been done by skydivers and dummies. Larkin, who is researching the insurability of the chute, gets steamed by the bad press.

"I love it when some-one goes, 'It's dangerous! You could die!'" he announces. "Hey, no shit. Duh! I could also die if I stay here. So I can either stay here and die or I can take a reasonably calculated risk and do this. If you had a medical condition and some-one said, 'You're gonna die, but there's an experimental drug out there that gives you a 50 to 90 percent chance of surviving.' Would you take the drug? Wouldja? Right."

Larkin admits the chances of having to deploy his Executivechute are almost nonexistent. He reckons Diet Coke consumption will kill him long before a terrorist attack. But, he says, that doesn't mean he shouldn't take precautions.

"Here's how I look at it," he explains. "I'm in insurance. I have a home owner's policy, a car policy, a disability policy, and a life policy. I don't plan on my house burning down today. I don't plan on getting in a car accident, I don't plan on getting disabled, and I certainly don't plan on dying today. Can it happen? Yeah. Anything can happen. That's why people buy insurance."

Larkin says plenty of his friends and coworkers have talked about getting their own parachutes, though none has done so yet. He stashes his in a cabinet behind his desk, but he's markered his name on the straps just in case. "You can do what you want, make fun or whatever," he says. "But God forbid there's a problem and you have to get out and there is no way out. What are you gonna do? You would give your left testicle to have that product.

And no one wants to say this, but if that product was sitting there in the World Trade Center, and there were 500 people on a floor and 100 of these chutes, what do you think would happen?"

He wouldn't be hindered by the thought of leaving behind 100 or so coworkers. "Misery loves company?" he asks. "I don't think so. I don't want any of my coworkers to die. It's pretty unique--I actually like 99 percent of my coworkers. If there's a tragedy, I want all of them to get out.

But there's an option. You have a choice. You want to buy it? Great. That's fabulous. If you don't want to buy it, that's fabulous. But don't come to me when the shit hits the fan and say, 'Uh, I really screwed up. I want to go with you.'"

The 12th floor of 900 N. Michigan is as high up as a typical 15th floor, Larkin figures, due to the shopping mall at the bottom. That's still just above the ten stories required for the chute's deployment. He says he won't jump unless he catches fire or can't breathe. In such a dire crisis, he'd have already strapped on his hot pink Executivechute and moved down the hall and around the corner into a bigger, brighter work space. That office, with an expansive view looking south over Delaware Street and the Fourth Presbyterian Church, belongs to a friend, but, he says, "It'll be mine someday when I sell more."

He hopes he'll have enough presence of mind to attach the parachute's rip cord to his friend's desk or the door. He'll have to smash the massive window with a hammer and leap for his life. He doesn't have the hammer yet. "I have to get one," he says. "Believe me, if I had to get out some way, I'd find a way out. I'd be throwing chairs through the thing." He acknowledges that people in the street could get hurt by shattered glass, "which is kind of sad, but hopefully by that time they could see there's a problem."

Ideally, he'd like to land in Fourth Presbyterian's courtyard, a green postage stamp that seems unreachable beyond the church's bristling spire. "What is my option?" he asks. "Who gives a shit if I land on top of the church? So what? If I end up there or over by the Cheesecake Factory, that's fine with me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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