An Urban Explorer Gone

For some, the lure of the old Gates factory is undeniable. And it was deadly for one.

The three friends approached the old factory. It was mid-morning on Sunday, September 9, so traffic on South Broadway was slight, reducing the likelihood of being seen. They scanned the perimeter, took a quick glance back. Then they walked through the unlocked gate and into the alleyway, looking for a way in.

The reasons for staying away from Gates were the same reasons for going inside. Behind its thousands of grime-caked windowpanes, the former factory was massive, antique, abandoned, filled with air ducts and conveyor belts and who knew what else.

That mystery is what attracted the three housemates, who were looking for a little diversion and adventure before their college classes kicked into high gear. Adam Buehler, who had his camera, walked alongside Michael Craig while John Polzin led the way — as usual. Known as Johnny to family and friends, he had just begun his final semester at Metropolitan State College of Denver, where he was earning a bachelor's degree in botany. But the 23-year-old was no science geek. At 6' 2", Johnny was nearly 200 pounds of solid muscle and athleticism. Above his heart was a flower, a Stargazer Lily, which he'd had tattooed on his chest when he started his official study of plant life. With subsequent ink sessions, the flower had grown around his shoulder and onto his back, a forest of vines and petals.

The former Gates factory.
The former Gates factory.
Johnny Polzin cultivated friends and flowers. His family can't understand how he met his fate in a dark place where nothing grows.
Mark Manger
Johnny Polzin cultivated friends and flowers. His family can't understand how he met his fate in a dark place where nothing grows.

Nothing blossomed inside Gates except rust on the old machinery, but the factory was a hidden part of the world. And for Johnny, that made it worth seeing.

The friends found an unlocked door and stepped inside. After the sunshine, their eyes had trouble adjusting to the dim light beyond the threshold.

Johnny went first. A few steps later, he was gone.

Joe Hicks read about the accident in the newspaper the next day. The story was barely a blurb, and simply reported that the fire department had rescued a man who'd fallen down an open elevator shaft at the Gates plant. But that was enough to shock Hicks. The night before the accident, the University of Colorado student had been exploring the factory himself. He and a buddy had snuck inside the building about midnight, armed with flashlights and waterproof boots, and hadn't emerged until daybreak. They'd missed the rescue by only a few hours.

"It was really weird, because we actually exited out that side," Hicks remembers. "I've racked my brain trying to remember places where he could've fallen in. There are lots of places where elevator doors had been pried open and it's just a straight drop down."

For Hicks, going into Gates is both a hobby and a sport. That's what urban explorers do, he explains: seek out abandoned, manmade structures and get inside them to see what they can see. Subway tunnels, empty mental hospitals and forgotten shopping malls are all fair game. Enter without breaking in and exit without getting caught. Post pictures on the Internet and trade tips with your peers. Hicks runs a website called Denver Drainers ( that lists the storm sewers and other tunnels beneath the city and describes what an explorer can find there.

Compared to East Coast cities with their massive metropolitan overlays and former manufacturing centers in the Rust Belt, Colorado has few options for explorers, mostly abandoned mines and forgotten missile silos ("Search Party," November 20, 2003). By far the most popular exploration destination is Gates, conveniently located south of downtown just off I-25.

A few years ago, Urban Explorers, a reality show on the Discovery Channel, featured Gates in a lengthy segment. The on-camera hosts crawled through steam tunnels beneath the buildings, explained the purposes of long-dormant machinery, scaled the famous water tower on the roof. The show didn't last long, though. Since the network felt obliged to obtain prior permission from property owners — in the case of Gates, a redevelopment company named Cherokee Denver — the action inside looked artificial and painfully cheesy.

Equally bad, but in a campy, B-movie way, is the sci-fi horror flick Shadow Walkers, which was filmed at Gates in 2005. When the factory went largely offline in the early '90s, there were more than 2.3 million square feet of industrial and warehouse space on the property. A little less than half of that could be attributed to Unit 10, where the majority of the manufacturing had taken place. Built in 1919, it was one of the oldest remaining structures on the site.

"It was really almost perfect for us," says David Marchiori, producer of Shadow Walkers, whose plot follows a group of soldiers and scientists being stalked through an underground bunker by a mutant monster. "It was supposed to be this kind of old, out-of-date, dormant facility, with circa 1910-to-1970s equipment. [Unit 10] is a million square feet of creature haven. Every corner you turn is just some new, creepier inspiration."

Between takes, the actors were asked to wear protective breathing masks to limit their exposure to the dangerous chemicals and asbestos that still contaminated the buildings and the soil below. And those weren't the only dangers. Thieves had been stripping copper wiring and other electrical fixtures from the factory, which meant that areas were torn up and power for the shoots had to be provided by rented generators, whose cords snaked across the floor. Crew members frequently stumbled on evidence of squatters, including discarded clothing and food wrappers. The brave few who ventured into the factory's darkest corners had to watch their step because of all the used syringes and crack pipes.

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