Urban climber electrocuted scaling drugstore building

Tyler O. Miller was a typical senior at Western Washington University in Bellingham, friends and family said: an outdoorsy, adventurous young man, an "athletic nerd" with an analytical mind who dreamed of writing sci-fi screenplays and novels.

He also loved to scurry up the sides of buildings like other people scale mountainsides — a pastime some call "urban climbing."

"He climbed a lot of buildings in his time," said his college roommate, Colin Dalvit, 21. "He looked at it as solving a problem, and he liked to go where most people didn't go. That was his deal."

But in the darkness of early Tuesday, after shimmying up the side of a drugstore building in downtown Bellingham, the graduate of Blanchet High School in Seattle bumped into power lines and was electrocuted before his body fell 30 feet to the pavement below.

"He was just messing around, and he got into kind of a tight spot," said Bellingham police Lt. Craige Ambrose. "And it was a maze of wires up there where he was.

"It's just tragic."

Miller, 21, an English literature major, was on a climbing excursion with a couple of friends about 1 a.m. when he fell from the Rite Aid building into an alley off Cornwall Avenue.

It appears Miller accidentally bumped his head on a high-voltage line, which he may not have seen, and then fell into other lines before plunging to the ground, said Whatcom County Medical Examiner Gary Goldfogel. Paramedics tried to revive him before pronouncing him dead, police said.

"He never showed any signs of life after he hit the ground," Goldfogel said. The official cause of death was electrocution, he said. The fall probably wouldn't have killed him.

While Miller may have had a couple of beers before his climb, investigators don't think alcohol was a factor in the accident, Ambrose said. Miller's friends, who weren't Western students and weren't named, won't likely face any charges.

"Urban climbing," sometimes called "buildering," is not a new pastime, and police at Western and at the University of Washington say they don't encounter it much anymore. Still, enthusiasts on the Internet boast of a "local renaissance" in the activity.

It was more popular in the 1970s, when students at the UW went so far as to publish a guidebook rating various campus buildings for climbability. The climbing rock near Husky Stadium was built, in part, in hopes of giving people an alternative to climbing up Denny Hall.

One UW spot that remains popular is the towering exhaust stacks in Red Square, though climbers "usually get caught before they get off the ground," said Annette Spicuzza, assistant chief of the UW police. "They can be arrested for trespassing. It's dangerous. It's just not safe."

Jule Gust, 25, a recent UW graduate and secretary of the UW Climbing Club, said she knows several people who enjoy climbing buildings.

"It's good climbing because it offers interesting structures for training," she said. "But it also helps that it's illegal and kind of exciting, and you have to go during the night. I guess the ones who still do it, do it because of the added thrill."

But police said it's a thrill that isn't worth it.

"Hopefully this is a passing pastime, and I hope to get the word out that it's not a good thing to do," said Jim Shaw, chief of the Western Washington University police.

Tyler Olson Miller was born Feb. 18, 1982, and except for his first four months, lived with his father, Bern, aboard a sailboat moored in Ballard.

He grew to 6 feet tall, an easy-tanning, blue-eyed athlete who won awards in martial arts, his father said. Still, he was quiet, though not an introvert. He didn't try to compete for attention, and he was helpful, wise and serious.

"If you can visualize this, he's an athletic nerd," said his father, 60, a Seattle computer programmer. "He liked rock climbing, but he liked video games. He liked hiking, but he was also into collecting cult DVDs."

Miller took up climbing about five years ago, and nurtured his outdoorsy, carefree attitude while at Western. "I sent him away as a nice little capitalist, and Western turned him into a tree hugger," his father said.

In college, where he worked at a local Taco Time, he made a lot of friends because he made people laugh but interested them with his analytical conversations, his roommates said. And he was always the first to jump up on stage at the karaoke bar, or the first to try a challenging climb.

"He was fearless in everything he did," roommate Dalvit said. "A complete original."

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com. Michael Ko: -515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com.

Memorial service

A service is set for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Evergreen-Washelli Funeral Home and Cemetery, 11111 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle.