An Urban Explorer Gone

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

Topp has only fond memories of the company from which he receives a pension check every month, though it now comes stamped with the name of the British firm that purchased Gates. And he still recalls the Christmas party that Gates held every year at the Denver Coliseum, where all the children of employees would get presents. His daughter is a grown woman now, with a grown daughter of her own.

A few years ago, he was even able to go inside the old plant, when that granddaughter worked on the horror movie filmed in the basement. "It was just the basement floor," he remembers. "Not one machine was left from the tire division. Nothing. Thirty years."

It was a pit. A big, fucking pit. The floor just dropped away into a ten-foot wide abyss, and then started again level and sturdy on the other side. They heard yelling, and screamed their friend's name.

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.

Mike pulled out his phone and called for help. He was the dweeby red-headed kid no one would talk to in middle school — but Johnny had marched right up to him and announced, "Hi. I'm John Polzin." The only boy in a family of three sisters, from then on Johnny regarded Mike as his brother.

While Mike made his frantic calls, Adam decided to climb down into the shaft. They didn't have a flashlight; they hadn't thought they'd need one. Adam made it down one level, then another. The shaft went farther. Five feet below basement grade, thirty feet down, he finally reached the bottom and stepped into water that came up to his shins. He felt around and found Johnny. His friend was still breathing. Adam remembers that the water smelled grimy, like corrosion and stale air.

Adam is thin and bookish and looks younger than his 24 years. One of his first memories of Johnny is the time that Johnny helped him make soup. They didn't live together then; Adam had just joined a mutual friend over at Johnny's house for dinner and offered to help. Johnny seemed to know what he was doing — he'd taken cooking classes — so Adam asked for instructions. How big should he cut the carrots? What about the potatoes? Spices?

"I don't know, man," Johnny had answered. "Do it however you want."

But he didn't say it like he didn't care how Adam made the soup. He said it like it was more important that Adam do the soup his own way, whatever way that was. Adam had never thought of it like that.

"I felt that same kind of push from him," Adam says now. "I saw him encouraging people and myself and everybody else to do what they wanted to do and not worry about what people told them. Just follow whatever you think is right."

Johnny was like that about everything. Last year, after seeing some tap dancers at Boulder's Dinner Theatre, he'd asked his sisters to get him lessons for Christmas. But when he showed up at the Arvada Center in his brand-new tap shoes, he was the only student who wasn't a girl under the age of ten. His sisters suspect there may have been a class recital, but he refused to clue them in on the date and time.

Johnny's interests were nothing if not eclectic. He convinced his father, Larry Polzin, to take accordion classes with him. He practiced making funny faces in the mirror the way others lift weights. He served on his college's student election commission. For birthday gifts, he wrote letters that methodically detailed what he viewed as the recipient's talents and unique qualities. He volunteered at the Denver Botanic Gardens and gave tours of the fauna and flora, sharing Latin names, geographic origins, all of it.

His parents were planning a move to Seattle in January. Johnny was going to move there, too, and get his master's in botany while working with his father in a new business creating gold-leaf plaques. He wanted to own a small farm, grow organic vegetables and save the world.

But in the blackness of the shaft, everything had changed.

Adam isn't sure how long they waited. Ten minutes? Twenty? Then the Denver Fire Department arrived, and the Engine 11 team put its ground ladder down the shaft to provide access for rescuers. The basement elevator door was pried open so that Johnny could be removed safely.

A body with less of a he-man physique might never have survived such a fall, and even so, Johnny's injuries were bad: broken bones, internal injuries. He drifted in and out of consciousness. Up top, local TV camera crews had already arrived. Mike and Adam refused to speak with reporters.

They did speak with Denver Police Department sergeant David Williams. The factory is part of Williams's sub-district in District 4, and he is quite familiar with the different types of people that Gates attracts. Since 2003, when the factory officially closed, police have been dispatched to the property at least twelve times on burglary reports, and nearly a dozen more on calls about trespassers or unwanted persons in the building.

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