Cover design by Andrew J. Nilsen.
Turn on the computer.
Open Twitter. Something catches your eye.
Man on 3rd floor ledge posing in his skivvies
A twitpic, date-stamped 3:18 p.m. on Feb. 16, 2010, shows a grainy figure, wearing nothing but blue boxer shorts, standing outside the tall arched window of an off-white brick building. More tweets roll in.
someone's standing on top of the forever 21 building downtown sf. Wowww
man trying to kill himself in Union Square. He's standing on a ledge three stories up.
Omg there's a guy standing on top of forever 21 bout to commit suicide!
wtf?!? there's a guy looking like he might jump from a ledge on market and fifth. so scary
I'm watching a guy stand on top of a building down town. He's a jumper. Jesus help him!
Refresh the page.
oh shit! he jumped! wtf!!!
Just saw a guy commit suicide off of forever 21 Omg this man just committed suicide and jumped off the building across the street from my job in downtown SF
Did I really just walk by someone jumping to his death off the Bank of America building at Powell and Market!?
Dude some one just jumped off a building by my job. Hella crazy
Twitter posts, Facebook statuses, Flickr comments, Yelp reviews of the Forever 21 store. Nearly 200 messages appear, shocked, angry, amused, detached.
I was shopping in Union Square and unfortunately witnessed this horrific sight.
I woke up this morning, and my twitter had been hacked. Then I was harassed for hours, && then saw the suicide man. Sheesh, session ::))
hadda watch a guy jump off a fourth floor ledge
Today was a strange day at work. Suicide across the street, awkward customers... Ohhh Tuesdays!
This guy clearly was waiting for help or a positive message from the crowd... They had plenty of time to stop it.
I was there and felt sickened for this man's life... wasn't sure if he wanted to jump... I feel that the crowd's actions encouraged him to jump.
The grisly photos show up on Flickr. The body ... the two policemen standing beside it ... the crowd in the background ... the craning necks of people hoping to catch a peek. Comments and views accumulate. Friends share with friends. The tale of the jumper works up the food chain of online communication, from social media to blogs to local news outlets. The images and descriptions spread like a schoolyard rumor, rippling outward from network to network.
Online, the dead man lives on. He is part meme, part current event, part campfire lore — a spectacle thrown into a virtual world filled with spectacle, a click away from "Call Me Maybe" parodies and cats who look like Hitler, dispatches from Syria and clips of people trying to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon. Permanently etched into history, he is The Man Who Jumped Off the Forever 21 Building.
A crowd gathers, absorbing foot traffic from Market Street, from the BART station down the stairs, and from the cable car turnaround. Young women carrying shopping bags, tourists holding maps and cameras, local drifters in tattered beanies and coats, commuters waiting at the bus stop, suited men on lunch break — they all trickle in. Hundreds of eyes watch the figure above them.
An ambulance arrives on the scene, and parks with its lights and engine off. Two dozen policemen stand guard, clearing out the sidewalk space directly beneath the building. Like everyone else here, the officers stare up at the ledge. Life is on pause.
Vendors selling handcrafted spoons and knit hats turn their heads for a glance. A production crew shooting a Verizon commercial has stopped filming. A group of breakdancers has turned off the boombox.
"Yo, isn't that the dude who bummed a cig off us?" one of the dancers asks his crew.
"Damn," one of them responds.
Some people look on silently, hands over mouths. A teenage girl in a sundress wipes tears from her eyes. A circle of high school-age kids debate whether a fall from that height would be fatal. A woman in a pantsuit talks into her phone, excitedly describing the scene. Others peck away at keypads. More phones pop up above the mass, angling for a snapshot. A light buzz of chatter hums along, punctuated by a shout.
Heads turn, seeking out the class clown in the sea of faces. Laughter rising all around, compressed snickers and knee-slapping roars.
In between chuckles, a man in a blue button-down blurts, "He said 'Jump!'"
His female companion in black sunglasses replies with an enthusiastic cackle, "That's awful!"
The shouts come every few seconds.
"Do it already!"
A few people occasionally call "Don't do it!" But they are outnumbered.
The shouters feed off each other, rewarded by the satisfying chorus of chuckles.
"Just do it!"
Nobody tries to stop them. Not their fellow bystanders. Not the cops.
From the street 100 feet below the ledge, the man barely seems real. He is nondescript, nothing more than white skin with a mild tan, a fit build, and shaggy blond hair. He is a faceless blur. He is anonymous, but will be defined by his final act.
The man on the ledge is named Dylan Yount. He is 32 years old, and his life is more than his death. Behind him, past the arching window, is his home, apartment 606 at 10 Cyril Magnin. It is filled with unpacked boxes. He is unknown, standing up there in this city. But 2,000 miles to the east, there is a town where everybody knows him.
Harrisburg is a rural patch of land in the middle of Missouri, bisected by a country highway, connected through gravel roads, and home to 266 residents. In many ways, Dylan was a product of his hometown. He spent his childhood climbing trees and playing tag in his vast, woody backyard. He dreamed of one day becoming a firefighter, like his friend Andrew Gray's dad. As a teen, he spent his weekends four-wheeling, fishing, and deer hunting.