It ain't fun waiting 'round to be a millionaire, so Fort Lauderdale thrill-seeker Steve Trotter ain't waiting. He's building another high-tech barrel in preparation for one more trip over the Horseshoe Falls portion of Niagara Falls. If he survives, Trotter will be the only person in history who can claim a Horseshoe hat trick, and he plans to earn one million dollars for the feat. If he dies, well, the title's still his, and he gets his name enshrined at the Niagara Falls Daredevil Museum, but there'll probably be an asterisk beside it, denoting a guy who didn't know when to quit.
Trotter first shot the falls at age 22, in a contraption made of two plastic pickle barrels lashed together with inner tubes. Videotape taken of Trotter after he spent five hours in a Canadian jail shows a tan, muscular, wild-eyed, good-time guy; a California-surfer-dude archetype from Rhode Island, wearing tight shorts and a contagious grin.
Drop number two took place ten years later in June 1995. By then he'd moved to Fort Lauderdale, where he took full advantage of the boat-building know-how native to these parts. His second barrel was an 1100-pound, $23,000 cylinder made of two water-heater tanks welded together and covered with Kevlar, foam, and fiberglass. Inside he packed scuba gear for breathing, a communications system, and his friend Lori Martin. Strapped in five-point harnesses, Trotter and Martin became the second couple to conquer the falls. That time the postride videotape showed the pair being rescued from their floating barrel when it lodged behind rocks in turbulent water at the bottom of the falls. "It was like being inside a washing machine," Trotter says in a gravelly voice.
They were promptly arrested. Rescuers had risked their own lives to free Trotter and Martin, and Canadian authorities were not amused. Trotter spent two weeks in jail. Martin got three days. They paid almost $10,000 in fines. Thanks to payments from shows like Inside Edition and A Current Affair, plus money from the sale of his barrel to a museum in Niagara Falls, Trotter estimates he made $100,000 from the stunt.
Besides the Niagara exploits, Trotter has a thing for swinging, pendulum-style, from tall bridges. Unfortunately the last time he tried it, from the Sunshine Skyway in Tampa in 1997, he brought four friends along for the ride. A harness bolt snapped, and all five plunged into the bay. Trotter broke some ribs, Martin broke her neck, and two of the other jumpers were seriously injured. Only one of the five came away unscathed. (Two years earlier Trotter had fallen out of a tree in Fort Lauderdale, broken his back, and injured his neck and pelvis.)
Today Trotter, age 40, is a bartender at Metal Factory. He sports waist-length hair, but it's not as thick and curly as it was back in the day. He's still lean and energetic, but his tan face wears a few wrinkles, and his body shows the scars of a life of thrill-seeking.
Trotter's vessel for drop number three will be a seven-foot-diameter ball he's dubbed the Plunge-O-Sphere 2002. The name pays homage to William Fitzgerald's successful 1961 ride over the falls in a steel-and-rubber ball named the Plunge-O-Sphere; it also hints at the time frame for Trotter's ride, which will likely take place next summer -- he'd rather not get too specific about a launch date. "I don't want them to know I'm coming," he comments. "As soon as I'm up there, the cops will follow me around."
To date the only manifestation of Plunge-O-Sphere 2002 is a huge plastic tank, more cylindrical than spherical, which was originally designed as a receptacle for either fuel or sewage. (Trotter isn't sure which.) The plan was to cut it in half, insert the necessary gear, then rejoin the halves. But now Trotter is unsure whether he will use the tank. His crew chief, Billy O'Connell, thinks an inflatable marine bladder -- the type used to raise sunken ships -- would make a better, rounder mold.
Whatever shape Trotter's Plunge-O-Sphere ultimately takes, it will be covered with carbon, fiberglass, and Kevlar, padded with thick foam, and capped with submarine-type hatches for exit and entry. This will be a solo effort. Trotter and Martin had a falling out after the Sunshine Skyway disaster. He hit the talk-show circuit, and she thought others involved in the effort should have gotten a piece of the action. "We fell out of touch more or less because of the money," he says.
If he survives his third Horseshoe drop, Trotter will pop out of his floating womb ready to make bail. "I'll have $10,000 in each pocket in hundred dollar bills," he says. He's budgeted $15,000 to build his Plunge-O-Sphere and another $25,000 to make a documentary about the record-setting ride. The film is paramount; if it's a polished piece that chronicles the ordeal from start to finish, a distributor will pay handsomely. That's the business plan, such as it is. Add fees for postdrop interviews, revenue from sponsors, and a nebulous Internet fundraising scheme having to do with betting on drop times and it should add up to a million dollars. At least Trotter hopes to God it does. "It used to be a matter of self-satisfaction," he comments. "Now it's "Show me the money.'"
Trotter isn't the first daredevil to believe a few seconds of terror might translate into a lifetime of riches. Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old schoolteacher, had the same idea a century ago. On October 24, 1901, Taylor became the first person ever to ride the falls in a barrel. She did it for fame and money, but the former proved fleeting and the latter elusive. Taylor died a pauper in 1921. Trotter's contingency plan to avoid the same fate: "If I don't make the million, I'll probably have to do it again."
Knight-Ridder just isn't making enough money, so the media giant is jettisoning hundreds of employees. Corporation-wide cuts at Knight-Ridder papers, including The Miami Herald, were announced earlier this month.
What hasn't been made public is the manner in which the company plans to shed workers. In a stunning coup, Undercurrents has obtained a top-secret memo authored by Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen. In a nutshell, the plan is dump the old farts. It makes perfect sense. They're the ones making real money after years of service. And who needs a bunch of crotchety seniors hanging around anyway?
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Last week 700 Miami Herald employees, young and old, received letters asking if they were interested in an early retirement or a buyout. Early retirement, by its nature, is directed at older workers. For staffers age 55 or older with at least ten years at the paper, the get-lost carrot includes two and a half weeks of pay per year of service, a lump-sum bonus of $35,000, six months of insurance coverage, and outplacement assistance.
What's interesting is that the buyout plan also offers bonuses to quinquagenarians. Everybody who has put in at least a year and holds a job deemed expendable is eligible to apply for a buyout (though the brass may not accept it -- go figure). This package includes, likewise, two and a half weeks of pay per full year of service, six months of insurance coverage, and outplacement assistance. For a buyout staffer age 50 or older, however, the pot gets sweetened by $35,000 if he or she has put in ten years or more.
Is it a conscious effort to put seasoned people out to pasture? "No," says Robin Reiter, vice president of human resources. "I suppose some of [the reason the buyouts are aimed at the senior set] is that it is more difficult for people in that age group to find jobs."
That's not necessarily the way it's playing in the newsroom, however. Arnold Markowitz, a 34-year veteran, says he personally sees no master plan to eliminate the gray-hairs. But he has heard colleagues speculate along those lines. "Even if [management was] thinking that, they wouldn't admit it," he says. "There is a large body of opinion that that is the case. I don't know it to be true, but it is a matter of concern."