UVA scrutinizes illicit explorers

Before a crowd of UVA students, friends and family that packed Trinity Presbyterian Church last Thursday, Vicki Gilliam remembered the eldest of her three sons as a young man that “would go to the heights, crazy child.” In the days after Tom Gilliam IV fell 40’ from the top of the UVA Physics Building to his death, university officials began work to prevent Gilliam’s fellow students from making similar, potentially fatal, ascents.

First-year UVA student Tom Gilliam IV, 19, was mourned by hundreds at Trinity Presbyterian Church last Thursday following his fatal fall from the UVA Physics Building roof. “He often said, ‘No one forgets the Irish guy,’” remembered a classmate.

UVA’s scrutiny, however, falls on a pastime tied to the school’s rooftops, steam tunnels and other off-limits areas. The day after Gilliam’s March 27 fall, UVA Police Lieutenant Melissa Fielding told media that UVA was “aware that there is a group of university students who try to enter secured spaces on Grounds as part of a challenge.” The same day, according to UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood, university facilities managers launched “an immediate and thorough review” of a number of buildings on Grounds.

“We will not, for security reasons, discuss the full extent of the changes that will be made,” Wood told reporters. However, she added, “we do plan to implement numerous new measures, including additional locked gates and steel panels in steam tunnels.” The Physics Building will be outfitted with new doors, locks and an electronic access system.

The steam tunnels were built in 1950 and almost immediately attracted a few illicit visitors, according to UVA news archives. One report includes a story from former UVA History Officer Raymond Bice, who said male students used the tunnels to access the nursing students’ dormitory prior to formal co-education. “A locked gate was installed in the passage to McKim [Hall, the nurses’ dorm], but students persisted in roaming the tunnels,” says an old story published by UVA’s Office of Media Relations.

A few sources suggest students’ persistence continued to occasionally defy UVA’s security. In 2009, UVA Police discovered a few naked swimmers in the school’s Aquatic Fitness Center (AFC), and told reporters that they likely accessed the AFC through the steam tunnels.

A website titled “The Bold and the Ruthless,” which provided a map of the UVA steam tunnels as well as what its authors call “anecdotal demonstration” of how to access UVA rooftops and interiors, closed following Gilliam’s death.

“In response to last weekend’s tragic accident the university has changed its policy towards accessing of the steam tunnels and rooftops from one of benign neglect to one of active prevention and prosecution,” read the site.

Gilliam’s grandfather, Tom, Jr., told C-VILLE Weekly that the family had no plans to pursue legal action against UVA, and said any changes to school policy is “their prerogative.”

“That said, I don’t think the university had ever considered this to be a particularly egregious sort of thing,” said Gilliam. Locking up the school, he added, “is against everything that the university stands for.” 

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