Brian O’Neill: Rappelling for a cause will go down after all

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Turns out before you can rappel down the side of a Pittsburgh hotel you have to jump through some hoops first.

I wrote a column June 15 about volunteers preparing to rappel 26 stories down the side of the Westin Convention Center hotel to raise money for charity on June 25.

Days later, organizers of Shatterproof, which seeks to stem drug addiction, got a call from a concerned city official.

Seems any rappelling activity requires a Special Permit to Lose Altitude Triumphantly, popularly known as SPLAT.

OK, I’m kidding about the name, but a temporary occupancy permit was needed because rappelling is outside — literally and figuratively — the hotel business. After phone calls and paperwork went back and forth, the city OK’d the event for Tuesday, July 15.

All this extra time to think about it hasn’t prompted any of the participants to back out. The event became booked solid shortly after my column ran. Ninety-six volunteers, most of whom have never rappelled before and all of whom are seeking at least $1,000 in donations to help Shatterproof, will be riding the elevator to the top of the hotel just so they can slide down its side at some point during the all-day event.

Gary Mendell is thrilled. He launched Shatterproof with other grieving parents after the oldest of his five children committed suicide at 25 after years battling drug addiction. Mr. Mendell, who did rappelling events in five other cities before coming to Pittsburgh, said he had no beef with the delays here.

“I would have said this a week ago, too,’’ Mr. Mendell said. “I think the city handled themselves fine.’’

The glitch happened this way: Following the same procedure it had in other cities, a Shatterproof representative went to the special permits office in early June. He was told no permit was needed because the hotel is private property.

Later, word of the event traveled up the bureaucratic food chain and the higher-ups realized such a big Downtown activity demanded special scrutiny.

Maura Kennedy, chief of the Bureau of Building Inspection since March 17, didn’t want to block what she calls “a very fun and very worthy’’ event, but she sought a few assurances — and got them.

A structural safety engineer did a load test on the anchoring system on the hotel roof that is typically used by window washers, not rappellers. Organizers will pay for an on-site ambulance, and various steps have been taken to ensure that no keys drop from any rappellers’ pockets to a passing noggin 26 stories below.

Mr. Mendell said Ms. Kennedy asked good questions, digging into every sentence of reports used in other cities, and “I have to respect that.’’

Dina Gaudio, front office manager at the Westin, is one of 34 hotel employees who signed up after they heard Mr. Mendell’s impassioned pitch earlier this year. She has bungee jumped at Kennywood, and she figures this is “kind of a risk but a little slower.’’ Anyway, she doesn’t want her fiance, Anthony Bianco, outdoing her: Mr. Bianco skydived at his bachelor party.

Ms. Gaudio, who knows people who have suffered from addiction, has raised $900 entirely through social media.

The top fundraiser thus far is Andrew Carlson, 23, who moved to Shadyside last October after landing a job with a Downtown accounting firm. Mr. Mendell was his youth basketball coach in Easton, Conn., and he’s raised nearly $4,000 from 37 donors.

Mr. Carlson said he’s found that the uniqueness of the event invites donors to ask more questions about the cause, which is good because addiction is so widespread and yet so poorly understood.

Courtney Keister, 29, will be coming here from northern Delaware with her grandfather, Wayne White. Both are rappelling, and they’ve raised more than $2,000. Her younger brother died of an overdose at 24. Though the thought of rappelling 26 stories makes her nervous, Ms. Keister said that making it easier for people to talk openly about addiction is more important than a little queasiness.

The postponement may have been a blessing. It rained hard the morning of the original date. My editor has barred me from participating (bless him), but donations can be made to any participant via the online link https://​secure.shatterproof.org/​pittsburgh.


Brian O’Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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