Down the Chute

If you haven't done it already this winter, you might want to check your chimney. You never know what you're going to find in there. Just going through the daily rituals of our little home inspection business, we've found active football-sized wasp nests; heaping piles of chimney swift babies (some alive, some dead); and, a gone-to-heaven cat or two. Those are just the critters. There's more: We've found wood formwork and framing, just waiting to catch fire and burn the house down. We've found foamboard, newspaper, rugs, rags, towels and plastic wrap, all meant to stop drafts, and all ready to fill the house with smoke, burn the house down, or both.

Sooner or later, I figure we'll find a person. That's because some poor crazy sumbitches do end up in chimneys. Just last month, Fort Worth resident Mark Vaughn got locked out of his house, and decided that the chimney was the best way in. Don't you know, he ended up stuck. Firemen had to come knock a hole through the chimney to get him out. Vaughn would probably still be in the chimney today if some observant neighbor-whose identity is still unknown-hadn't called for help.

Earlier this year, a grocery store owner in Evansville, Indiana opened up his store, and heard somebody hollering in his chimney. Once again, firemen came to the rescue. Although police suspected that the chimney man was just a would-be robber with a bad plan, they bought his story that he had been chasing his escaped pet parrot across the grocery store roof, and followed the bird when it flew down the chimney.

Two years ago, masons renovating an old building in downtown Natchez, Mississippi found the remains of Calvin Wilson, who had disappeared in 1985. Wilson's family was upset by this development, because they thought his body had been recovered from the banks of Mississippi River way back in 1986. As it turned out, Calvin didn't meet his fate on the river. Instead, he went to his reward when he tried to break into the Riverboat Gift Shop by taking a headfirst dive down the chimney.

Back in 2000, Southern Californian Shaun McCarthy, seized by a powerful urge to spend some time with his estranged girlfriend (never mind the restraining order), jumped down the chimney of her duplex. The flue was 12 inches x 15 inches, which is just a little bit bigger than a laptop computer. So, don't you know, Shaun didn't make it to the bottom. He found himself stuck in a squat, with his arms up over his head. Los Angeles firemen tried to haul him out with a rope, but he couldn't get it around his body. The firemen finally jackhammered a hole in the chimney, with Shaun screaming like a circus monkey the whole time. Once Shaun was out, he got stuck again, this time in the La Mesa jail.

Weirder than all of 'em, though, was the poor soul who tried to break into Nashville's Pancake Pantry back in 1992. He didn't exactly go in through the chimney, he went in through the whopping big exhaust vent over the restaurant's grill. And he went in butt-naked. All the better to slide through the grease, I reckon. He went feet-first, and his feet almost made it to the grill. He might've gotten in all the way if he hadn't caught his neck on his arm, and suffocated himself.

The incident got one last crazy twist that evening, when video of the recovery effort was shown. The heat from the fireman's cutting torch activated the Pancake Pantry's fire extinguishers. Next thing you know, the whole scene was enveloped in a rapidly-expanding cloud of fire suppressant, which knocked most of the oxygen out of the room, and sent rescuers and reporters alike running through the fog, fighting for air.

There's a lesson here, and it's obvious: If you're a dumbass looking to break into a building, the chimney is not the way to go. Try the doors or windows instead. Or, if you want to do something fancy, go get yourself a decent battery-powered reciprocating saw. That'll get you through a roof, or a wood- or vinyl-sided wall. Heck, you can get through a vinyl-sided wall with a utility knife.

I know some of you are thinking: Hush, Jowers. Don't tell the criminals how to cut holes in houses. Well, don't you worry. I've checked the demographics. Burglars who are looking to upgrade from their usual chimney-diving break-ins don't read this column. But even if one does, if he tries to cut his way into a house, he'll mostly likely end up incapacitated, or at least leave a really easy-to-follow blood trail back to his place.

If I come home one day and hear somebody hollering in my chimney, I'll yell back and make sure it's not my old drummer. I say this because even though he's crazy and hard-up enough to rob me, I still love him. If I had the drummer in my chimney, I'd call the fire department. If anybody else gets stuck up there, I guess I'll just fire up the gas logs.