Last week, my friends Steven and Wesley and I explored the abandoned Carroway Hospital in Birmingham. With limited “urbexing” experience, I was a bit hesitant to go, considering Steven wanted us to camp atop the roof.
The pictures he showed me of the view, however, made it seem worth it. I don’t mind exploring abandoned places—even alleged haunted ones—provided I’m with other people. Besides, I’ve always had a penchant for getting away with harmless mischief.
About Carraway Hospital
Dr. Charles Carraway started a 16-bed hospital in his town of Pratt City, AL, in 1908. In 1917, he bought the current location on the corner of 16th Ave and 25th St in Birmingham and relocated it. He named it Norwood Hospital after the neighborhood. The hospital later changed its name to Carraway Methodist Hospital.
Dr. Carraway suffered a stroke in 1957 and turned it over to his son Ben, who greatly expanded capacity. The iconic star atop the roof, which used to be blue, was added on Christmas Day, 1958.
Dr. Carraway died in 1963, but his legacy continued as one of the most state-of-the-art hospitals in Alabama. The neighborhood surrounding it, however, declined greatly in the 70s and 80s, even as the hospital put tens of millions of dollars into expansion.
By the early 2000s, finances caught up with it. In 2006, Carraway filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and a year later, it was auctioned to Physicians Medical, LLC. The new owners briefly turned it around. But by the fall of 2008, they couldn’t make payroll and closed it.
The women’s rehab charity The Lovelady Center bought it in 2011 for $6 million. However, local residents opposed a rehab center in their neighborhood. After a local zoning board failed to approve it, The Lovelady Center sold it to a development group in 2018. The new owners plan to turn it into a mixed-use development.
With the hospital’s imminent demolition and transformation in mind, we knew we had limited time to explore it. In fact, the new owners had told Steven over the phone early this year they would start tearing it down in May.
Exploring Carraway’s Ruins
I got to bed late the night before and ended up sleeping till the last minute. So, I didn’t have time to get any coffee. I figured there would be somewhere to stop, or at least a convenience store close to the hospital.
Steven—who was driving,—takes caffeine pills, however. So he pulled over at a Dollar General on the way to pop a couple. I went inside to get a Monster but found none of them were cold.
Much to my disappointment, the neighborhood surrounding Carraway is an urban wasteland as far as quick food or coffee goes. There is one Kentucky Fried Chicken about half a mile away, but otherwise, even crummy gas stations seem few and far between.
We stopped at the KFC, and I got a Mountain Dew. I hate soda, but I needed the caffeine.
We parked across the street from Carraway at a government-housing parking lot.
After all, if you’re going to trespass, go all out!
We left our gear in the car and entered through the front entrance.
“That’s where we’ll sleep,” Steven said, pointing to the building next door.
The complex is huge. I don’t know why I expected it to be any smaller than modern hospitals, considering it just closed down 14 years ago.
Entering Carraway felt like entering a set for The Walking Dead. Vandals had smashed every window in sight and stripped every wire.
Although our flashlights were strong, once we entered the main floor, it was like the darkness enveloped us. In some parts—in broad daylight—seeing six feet ahead would be impossible without a light.
Steven knew what each building used to be and acted as our tour guide. I wasn’t as interested in the history of the buildings and rooms as I was climbing to the top floors for the views.
The hall on the first floor led to an open courtyard. We went into what used to be an auditorium before climbing the stairs to the roof.
To get to the roof, we had to climb through a shattered window, then walk across about 20 feet of glass. Steven and I went across, but Wesley stayed behind. I thought he was afraid of the glass, but as I found out later, it was the height.
The view from the rooftop made the risk of glass going through my Nikes worth it. In the distance, I could see what looked like an EMS station with a few cars parked inside its carport. Nearby, I heard construction workers, probably the same ones we’d seen behind the complex when we drove around it earlier.
On my way back inside, I found wading across glass the second time a bit more stressful.
After leaving the courtyard, we made our way toward the back of the main building, stopping along the way to check out various rooms. The intact curtains and undisturbed ceilings made this section feel eery after seeing other sections gutted of nearly all but concrete.
We went to the back stairwell, passing the elevator shafts. Being a thriller fan, my mind went to different scenes these shafts could be used for. I admit I winced slightly every time I looked down, not knowing what I might see.
Once arrived at the stairwell, we began our ascent to the top floor. I knew Wesley was terrified of heights. But I had never seen a phobia that strong. He panicked even in stairs guarded by a wall. It didn’t help that some jackass had written “one more floor” at the top four floors. We went slowly for Wesley but eventually made it.
The views were once again excellent, although the floors and rooms were becoming monotonous.
At the top floor, we looked down the hall window at several workers meandering about. But then I noticed the SUVs parked in the EMS station carport appeared to be police vehicles. I mentioned that to Steven and Wesley, but Wesley—who had worked in EMS—insisted it was just EMS workers.
We went down to the bottom floor and made our way toward the building where we would camp. Steven knew a way through the complex, so we wouldn’t have to go back outside.
That way took us right by the workers, who were now right behind the main building. One of the first rooms we passed had an active generator in it.
It was nearly pitched dark on the bottom floor, so we all had our flashlights out—which concerned me the closer we got to the workers. Steven is experienced in urban exploring and knows the rules well. I knew he would be able to talk his way out of nearly any situation. But I’m of the opinion that even if you’re not breaking any laws or doing anything wrong, in some cases, it’s best not to have to explain yourself. This was one of those cases—especially since I remained unconvinced that those were just EMS workers in that carport.
“Stop!” I hissed, as we were about to explore what looked like a dining hall. “There’s a person right there.”
Sure enough, one of the workers in a hard hat was less than 50 feet away right outside the wall.
We quietly moved down the hallway and put some distance between us and the workers.
The Purcell Wing, where the star sits and where we planned to camp, has a very different feel from the rest of the building. The other side of the hospital is dark and vandalized but doesn’t really feel creepy. Nearly every floor of Purcell was completely gutted. Every ounce of copper that pillagers could get had been gotten. Even though there was more light here, I preferred to move through this one to our destination with minimal exploration.
Steven, however, had other plans.
We went to the staircase at the end, facing the main road, and started up. Steven suddenly remembered that this wasn’t the one we were supposed to go up.
“What’s wrong with this one?” I asked. It was an actual, walled stairwell, which Wesley needed.
“This isn’t the one,” was all he said.
Suddenly I heard a loud bang, which sounded like it came from no more than two floors up—the sound someone makes when they’re jumping up and down on a floor.
“Did you hear that?” I said.
Steven simply pointed back and nodded.
We headed back toward the center of the building. But Steven and Wesley acted like everything was normal. In fact, they were being obnoxiously loud. I realized that he hadn’t actually heard what I’d heard. Wesley is admittedly partially deaf, but I’d noticed Steven sometimes didn’t hear that well either.
Someone was upstairs, and these two were completely oblivious.
I wasn’t going to alert them since it would be impossible to impress on them the urgency of caution I was feeling if they hadn’t heard the noise. Instead, I moved ahead of them, hoping to convey that I wanted to get to the roof already. But Steven had a hurt leg from breaking a bone on a previous camping trip, and that wasn’t happening.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we made it to the stairwell Steven wanted. We began our ascent, stopping at each floor and poking our heads down the hall, partly to help Wesley avoid an anxiety attack, partly to see if there was anything on that floor other than stripped ceilings and graffiti.
I quietly asked Steven if he’d heard a loud bang back at the first stairwell.
“Oh, yeah, it sounded like it came from outside,” he said. I told him I disagreed, but I wasn’t going to press the issue. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t easily recognize danger, and the last thing I wanted was for him to think I was becoming spooked.
“I don’t like this floor,” Wesley said on the fourth floor after poking his head in the hall.
Suddenly, that same bang I heard earlier rang out again, only much louder. Wesley nearly jumped out of his skin and ducked back into the stairwell, putting his hand no his sidearm. I didn’t move since I didn’t know if whoever or whatever was up there was coming or going.
“Hello!” Andrew called out. “We’re just exploring—looking around.”
“It was probably just the wind,” he mused, although I could tell that he too was slightly jumpy.
“Remember,” he said, “if we meet anyone, they’re probably more scared of us than we are of them. Just call out and let them know we’re just checking the place out.’
“Me and a friend ran across a homeless lady one time,” he continued. ‘She called out before we even saw her. We just explained what we were doing, and that put her mind at ease.”
My mind wasn’t at ease, though, as long as Wesley’s acrophobia was acting up. After floor five, it was taking us nearly three minutes to climb each floor. At one point, at the last building, he had to crawl up the final flight.
The entrance to the roof is on the tenth floor of Purcell. Wesley made it to the eight and insisted we continue without him.
“I’ll see it when we bring up the camping gear,” he said.
Steven and I reluctantly agreed and continued on.
On the ninth floor, there’s a slight balcony that opens up directly facing the abandoned EMS station.
“Those are definitely cop cars,” I told Steven. “Do you have any binoculars?
He pulled out a pair of weak kiddie binoculars—the kind I had when I was eight. They confirmed that there was at least one person in one of the cars, though.
“They’re probably here just to keep an eye on the construction workers,” Steven suggested.
“Still,” I said. “I think it’s best if we keep out of sight.”
We climbed to the top floor. There’s a ladder that leads to the highest point on Carraway’s roof. I climbed it, but couldn’t stand up because it would have put me directly in the line of sight of those police cars.
Wesley had a cot, so only Steven and I would have to string up our hammocks.
But as Wesley feels about heights, I feel about wasps—or any flying creature that stings. And, lo and behold, to my disappointment, there were dozens of wasps swarming in a corner of the roof.
Steven played it down like there were only a few. Besides, he said, we weren’t going to camp there, we were camping by the star.
I looked up at the star. Sure enough, we had stirred up dozens there too.
“No way!” I insisted. “There’s no way I’m sleeping out here.”
I was honestly looking for an excuse to get out of camping atop this forsaken place, especially after what I’d heard—and the other two had not—downstairs. Even if it was just the wind, if I’m the only one who has good hearing here, that’s a problem in a place like this.
I agreed to sleep on the roof, but my hammock would have to be strung inside—although I wasn’t sure if that would be any more settling.
Wesley had already headed back down, so Steven and I looked for an easier staircase for Wesley to climb later when we made our final ascent.
On the ninth floor, we discovered the source of the loud banging we heard. It wasn’t someone jumping or walking. It was just the wind slamming a door open and shut on the ninth floor.
We caught up with Wesley on the second floor. We decided to take him to an easier staircase we found. Wesley opened the hallway divider door that led to it and immediately shut it.
“Aw, hell no!”
“What?” We asked. He cracked it open again. It was a toy truck big enough for two people. We chuckled and went in. Apparently, that was the children’s ward, which creepily had toys still strewn on the floor in random places. Someone had decided to be cute and move one of the trucks down a floor.
We spent another hour or so exploring the basement. It almost resembles catacombs. It’s two levels deep with a flooded subbasement, which leads to the flooded loading dock.
After heading to the car, we had an hour to kill before dusk. I was ready for some non-sugared caffeine before heading back up. We went to Frothy Monkey, a Nashville-based coffee shop. I ordered a pour-over, Wesley ordered Earl Gray, and Steven ordered a beer.
A friend of mine called just as we were leaving to catch up. I told her what I was up to.
“Oh, great! That sounds like so much fun,” she said. “Well, you enjoy yourself.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. I was not looking forward to making that climb again with Wesley’s acrophobia—this time with all our gear. I almost wondered if I should tell her goodbye.
Attempted Roof Camping
It was nearly dark when we got back to Carraway. If I was going to sleep on top of an abandoned hospital, the least we could do was catch the sunset I thought. But with Steven’s bad leg and Wesley’s fear of heights, we weren’t exactly going to be sprinting up those stairs.
We bypassed the main building and went straight to Purcell this time. I carried the most so it would make the climb easier on Wesley.
He surprised himself and us with how well he did. We only had to stop twice on the way up. I told him it was because of his pack; he’d gone into soldier mode.
After showing Wesley around the roof, we set up camp. The wasps had gone back into hibernation, so I felt okay sleeping outside, provided I was closer to the door than the star.
With camp set, Wesley fired up the grill and warmed our precooked burgers. After the meal, we settled back for a movie and drinks.
I found I was quickly put at ease on the roof. I didn’t enjoy being in the building, but after eating the anxiety dissipated, and it became just another campsite.
Halfway through the movie, though, I saw a flashlight shine through the doorway where Steven had propped his flashlight. We had company.
“Hello!” Andrew called out. “We’re out here.”
“Oh, shit!” we heard someone say, as several people ran back to the other side of the roof.
We called out a few more times, and I heard faint murmuring.
In hindsight, this was really dumb, but at the time, it seemed like the safest move.
I grabbed my light and walked into the doorway, shining it toward the other group.
“Hey, we’re just camping.”
I saw half a dozen figures from the other side of the floor. A few of them had lights.
“Oh, he said they’re camping,” one of them said as they came toward us.
At first, it was four. But they kept coming. I looked up. Two of them had climbed the ladder and were on the roof above us.
We made small talk with the several who came out to where we were. They looked young, from high schoolers to 19-20-year-olds.
Out of the blue, one of them asked us if we had any weapons. I noticed he and a couple of the others had knives out.
“That’s a weird question,” Steven said and glanced at me. “We don’t have any valuables, or money, or anything.”
“Can one o’ y’all take our picture?” One of them asked, changing the subject, thankfully.
“Sure,” Steven said. “I can take your picture. Where do you want it? In front of the star?”
Steven turned to me and started saying something about die Pistole. I couldn’t make it out, but if he was saying he needed to get his pistol, he read my mind. As he got up to take their picture, he spoke to me in German again.
“Ich weiss nicht,” I said. “Mein Deutch ist nicht so gut.”
He then told me in English, but I think my adrenaline was running so fast I couldn’t comprehend what he was saying no matter what language he spoke.
“You need to get your gun,” I said, which would be kind of hard to conceal since he was only wearing boxers.
I moved over to Wesley while he took the boys’ pictures.
“Keep your gun handy,” I mouthed. He nodded.
I noticed not only did a few of them still have knives out, but one of them was waving around a handgun like it was a water pistol—making sure it got waved in Steven’s direction. I don’t think Steven noticed as he was busy trying to build rapport with this bunch.
If something went down, Wesley’s handgun would be the only thing standing in the way of the three of us getting stabbed, shot, or thrown to our deaths off this roof—possibly all three.
I was trying to stay calm, but the thought that if something went wrong, I could be living my last few moments on earth terrified me like nothing ever had.
I was still in summer mode and had forgotten to pack long sleeves, so I’d wrapped myself in a blanket. The thought occurred to me that Andrew might be right. They could be more scared of us than we were of them. They hadn’t pressed the weapons question, and it was possible that some of the more level-headed ones might think I could have a gun under my blanket trained on them.
To ease my nerves, I stood up and walked around, making sure I didn’t get too far from Wes.
“In my left pocket,” he told me.
Andrew was finishing up being the gang’s photographer.
“Y’all be careful with the star,” I warned. “There’s wasps all in it.”
“Oh, really?” They asked. Several of them were climbing on it and spinning it around.
The one who asked if we had weapons was eying me and started moving toward me as I watched Steven. I casually turned toward him and made conversation. This seemed to put him at ease.
We chitchatted briefly about the hospital—the cop cars we’d seen—the homeless lady that Steven once encountered.
“That’s why I always call out to people here,” he told them. “I just don’t want to startle anyone.”
“Well, don’t do that again,” one of them warned humorlessly. “We about shot you. You callin’ out, ‘Hey, we here’. You lucky we didn’t just shoot first and ask questions later.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s why I wanted to call out and just let y’all know, ‘Hey, we’re friendly’.”
The chitchat continued, and I could tell Steven was getting as ready as me to see them leave. He excused himself to go pee and spent a solid two minutes urinating over the wall, sometimes answering their questions over his shoulder.
Wesley and I both went back to our stove and sat down. Maybe, if we just ignore them, they’ll find us boring and go elsewhere, I thought.
It seemed to work, and they headed off. It wasn’t a full minute, though, and half a dozen of them came back—not looking for anything, not looking for more pictures, just meandering.
Again, we ignored them unless they spoke to us, and made it subtly clear we were going back to our thing, and they were welcome to share the roof with us as much as they liked.
One of them finally asked about the basement. That did the trick. We talked up the basement—which is pretty interesting—piquing their interest. They finally left.
After I was sure they were gone, I turned to Steven and said, “We’re leaving!”
I counted eight when Steven took their picture, but I don’t know how many stayed behind or above us. Plus, the night was young. It was only about 11:00, and they could party and come back with more.
Steven assured us that they wouldn’t come back, but I wasn’t having it.
“Those aren’t just curious kids,” Wesley said. “Those are wannabe gangbangers.”
“Yeah, we’re in a bad part of Birmingham,” I reminded them. “We don’t know anything about the local gang culture. Besides, that wasn’t natural to ask if we had any weapons when they outnumbered us like that, and we were just sitting down, not doing anything the least bit threatening.”
I suggested leaving camp as it was, sleeping in the car—although I was going to insist that we drive to a different parking lot first—and come back in the morning. We could still cook our breakfast here and watch the sunrise over the star.
“I would just like to see a sunrise,” Wesley said.
We agreed to finish the movie since that would give the gang time to leave the complex. Wesley didn’t want to climb back up just for breakfast and the sunrise. So, we packed up and headed down for good.
The trip down was slow and, for me, nerve-wracking. I carried what I had going up plus Wesley’s backpack, but it still took us about 15-20 minutes to get outside and another five to get to the car.
We drove to the nearest rest stop and fell asleep.
We didn’t get to see the sunrise over the Carraway star. But at least Wesley and I did get a less stressful sleep than we would have exposed back on that roof.
Besides, Alabama rest stops are some of the best-kept and most scenic interstate rest stops in the country—not a bad place to sleep over and eat breakfast after exploring abandoned buildings and meeting armed teenage hoodlums at 100 feet in the air.