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Plunge inside Divine Lorraine teaches Temple daredevil a hard lesson

At the time, it seemed like a great idea, a nocturnal outing on a spring evening for a dozen or so Temple University friends.

Brian Jerome outside the Divine Lorraine Hotel on October 23, 2012. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Brian Jerome outside the Divine Lorraine Hotel on October 23, 2012. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff PhotographerRead more

At the time, it seemed like a great idea, a nocturnal outing on a spring evening for a dozen or so Temple University friends.

"Let's go to the Divine Lorraine," Brian Jerome, then a 19-year-old art student, suggested to all those assembled on the benches outside Peabody Hall.

It was before midnight on April 6, 2010. Brian had been inside the abandoned hotel on North Broad Street many times. He had felt the lure of the graffiti-draped Divine Lorraine from the moment he arrived on campus as a freshman the year before.

Meandering its dark, dank corridors, Brian loved to imagine the grandeur of the building's storied past as the headquarters for the self-styled preacher Father Divine and his flock.

The group split up into three cars. Outside the sleeping behemoth, they had no problem scaling a chain-link fence and crawling through an air duct to get inside.

All they had to guide them through the blackness was the glow of cellphones and two flashlights. Brian led everyone up a stairwell.

Stopping on the fifth floor, he took out a can of black spray paint. He straddled a wide hole in the concrete floor and reached to paint the outline of a face on the wall. His friend Drew Rutledge pointed a flashlight at him from a few feet away.

Brian shifted his weight from his right foot to left.

Drew shifted the faint beam to the left.

But in the blink of that moment, he lost sight of Brian.  

What the -?!

Drew pointed the light down the hole.

He saw no bottom.

In a suburban home near York, Pa., Lynn Jerome was getting ready to turn in for the night. As she pulled down her bedspread, her cellphone rang.

The caller ID showed that it was Drew, Brian's roommate.

Hmm, she thought, wonder why he's calling so late?

When he screamed her name, she held her breath, straining to keep up with the torrent of words.

Brian ... Divine Lorraine ... fell five stories ... hospital.

"They think there's no brain damage," Drew sputtered, thinking those words would be reassuring.

Brian was the only child of Lynn, now 57, and her husband, Dean, 64. Lynn, a foster-care caseworker, became a stay-at-home mother when he was born. Dean was retired from a sales job with ExxonMobil.

Growing up in Dallastown, Brian was the type of stubborn kid who needed to learn the boundaries of life on his own. Wiry and small, he dabbled in sports, earning a brown belt in tae kwon do, but his passion was art.

Lynn and Dean had visited their son at Temple two weeks earlier. He had pointed out to them an abandoned factory near Chinatown that he liked to explore. But his favorite, he told his parents, was the Divine Lorraine. From the roof, it had the best view of the city. One rainy night, he had scaled its heights to spray-paint "717" - the area code for York - on the roof.

"Brian," his mother had cautioned, "these buildings are blocked off for a reason."

"I'm really careful, Mom," he assured her. "You don't have to worry."

Inside the emergency room of Hahnemann University Hospital, a doctor said Brian had broken nearly every bone in his body.

Dean immediately went to his son's bedside. Too traumatized, Lynn could only view him from afar, taking peeks from behind a curtain. Brian's neck was in a brace. His head was bandaged with only one puffy eye showing. Blue tubes connected him to a respirator.

Brian had arrived in the emergency room conscious, but was in a medically induced coma to keep the brain swelling down.

After falling five flights down an elevator shaft, Brian had landed facedown on a pile of rubble and glass. "I'll just walk it off," he told his friends after they had flipped over his blood-soaked body in the basement of the Divine Lorraine.

"You can't walk!" one of them yelled, trying to hold him down. "You've got bones sticking out of your legs."

Brian had broken the femurs, or thighbones, in both legs. His nose was smashed, his face and knees sliced with cuts. He had landed with such force that the cap from the spray-paint can was lodged in his foot.

"Can he hear us?" Lynn asked the ER doctor.

Thanks to a cocktail of morphine, Fentanyl and Ativan, Brian was on a narcotic-fueled journey to a place far, far away.

He thought he was on a plane over the Soviet Union that was crashing.

He thought he was handcuffed to a bench on Girard Avenue near the Piazza at Schmidts.

He thought a nun had come to tell him this was the end of time.

He thought one of his friends had horns.

Ten days later, he woke up.

After nurses removed his breathing tube, Brian became agitated when he realized his wrists were tied to the bed. He could not remember how or why he had landed in the hospital. His first thought was it must be alcohol poisoning from a drinking binge.

He drifted back to sleep and when he came to, his mother was staring at him with three of his friends.

His words came spilling out. Lynn let him keep talking, cringing at his profanity as he described his hallucinations.

At times, he held her hand.

The body of a young, healthy person heals quickly.

Doctors said that could be the only way to explain how on June 1, 2010 - eight weeks after his accident - Brian Jerome was back at his apartment in North Philadelphia.

Doctors thought it would take two years before he could properly walk. But the impatience of youth worked to Brian's advantage. He ditched the wheelchair soon after returning to his parents' home in late April. He had a walker for a week and a cane for three days.

When he returned to Temple, Brian became notorious as the guy who had survived a swan dive inside the Divine Lorraine. It made him uncomfortable.

"I don't want anything that happened to me to be glorified," he said. "I'm not proud of any aspect of it."

Even so, when another student, Hunter Johnson, asked him to revisit the scene of the accident in the fall of 2010 for a documentary, Brian consented.

Until then, his only recollection of what had happened was what he could piece together from his friends. He needed to see the Divine Lorraine.

"I went back to put things together in my head," he said.

On a cool, blue-sky October afternoon, Brian and two friends who were with him that night were filmed venturing into the building through an open back door.

Brian took long drags from a cigarette as he stood in the basement, craning his neck to look up through the elevator shaft. From there, the trio climbed stairs to the fifth floor. Brian followed the lead of his friends, his eyes wide, his voice quavering, his hands jammed into the pockets of his navy pea coat.

He inched towards the edge of the shaft.

"How did I not see that?" he wondered.

Brian held the wall with one hand and gingerly peered down.

"So . . . far," Brian was heard saying on camera.

Brian is finished with abandoned buildings. And the Divine Lorraine is finished with urban explorers like Brian.

The historic property has been sold to developer Eric Blumenfeld, who has reinforced the building even more to keep out trespassers. Blumenfeld plans to restore it to rental apartments. All the lower windows have been sealed with cinderblock.

The Divine Lorraine changed Brian. He's not going to lecture anyone about abandoned buildings or taking risks, but he knows things now that he didn't see before.

"I was living a self-destructive life and not taking my education seriously," said Brian, now 22, who graduates in May with a degree in printmaking.

About the only outward reminder of his accident is a jagged scar under his right eye and another memento: a hand-size tattoo of the Divine Lorraine on his calf.

"It's a way of remembering what happened to me," he said, "and, at the same time, moving forward."