In South Philly, Rebecca Bunting was a popular, tatted-up, 30-year-old bartender.
But around the world, she was known as @_bword, for the persona she used to interact online with the global urban exploration community made up of photographers and thrill-seekers who trespass in abandoned spaces: Some enter these “bandos” for the sake of great photography, others do it for pure, unadulterated adrenaline.
And Bunting was one of the greats.
“She was the bando queen,” Carly Weiss, a friend and fellow urban explorer, said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
While shooting photos with her boyfriend from inside a storm drain near Roosevelt Boulevard Saturday night, Bunting was swept away by Pennypack Creek’s raging waters during a flash flood, becoming the creek’s sixth victim in eight years. Police found her body Sunday morning near the Frankford Avenue Bridge.
After her death, members of the “urbex” community from across the world posted memories on Instagram, where Bunting, who often went by “Becca,” had more than 10,000 followers.
A photographer from Houston wrote: “Those days exploring with you in Philadelphia were honestly the most memorable moments of my trip.” An explorer from Ontario wrote, “You have been such a strong influence in the community, and such a big inspiration to so many fellow explorers.” Another urbex account posted a photo of Bunting holding a camera, writing: “Dark clouds gathered above our community.”
Bunting’s Instagram account and a blog she contributed to are full of her sweeping photos showing scenes from explorations across the country: peeling walls in an abandoned jail in the Midwest. Gurneys and wheelchairs inside a decrepit hospital in Texas. A rusted piano in a left-behind middle school. Last summer, she posted a photo with the caption: “My camera is my tool. Through it I give reason to everything around me. ”
Bunting’s closest friends and family had no idea the Shady Side, Md., native had inspired other photographers, from California to Greece. But they weren’t surprised, either — she was all-in with most things, whether it was beauty pageants as a toddler, softball as a preteen, or weightlifting in her 20s.
Tina Fluharty, Bunting’s mother, said her daughter picked up a professional-grade camera just 2½ years ago. She became obsessed, and on more than one occasion ran into the house at dinner time to grab her camera to capture “golden hour,” the time of day just after sunrise or before sunset when outdoor lighting is ideal.
Fluharty said her daughter had an unquenchable curiosity about abandoned places, “a knack for the unusual,” and a gift for, well, breaking into buildings.
“If you examine Rebecca’s life, it would be clear,” she said, “she would inspire people to live a fearless life.”
Christine Carbone of Long Island knew Bunting through the urban exploration community and said that while Bunting was one of the most talented photographers she knew, the woman’s greatest gift was tracking down and navigating abandoned spaces. She remembered a time when she met Bunting with two other women in Philadelphia to go exploring, and when Bunting confidently walked 20 feet ahead of the group, everyone naturally followed.
“She was somebody I could totally trust in that situation,” Carbone said during a phone interview while sitting atop an abandoned psychiatric hospital near her home.
Most of the locations that attract urban explorers are kept secret. Those in the urbex community say this is to keep two groups away: the police and the explorers who find abandoned places solely to trash them.
The Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street, before it was redeveloped into apartments, was long a destination for urban explorers. So was Graffiti Pier, a former coal-loading pier near Port Richmond that police shut down last month, citing safety concerns.
Urban exploration is a calculated risk. Those who do it frequently break into restricted spaces by climbing through a window, cracking open a door, or jimmying a lock.
And there are clear safety concerns that can lead to injury or death. Other urban explorers have died doing this work, including a New Jersey photographer who fell from the roof of the 52-story Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown Manhattan in 2015.
Carrying photography equipment and moving around in places that aren’t up to code brings with it other hazards, too, ranging from electrical zaps to collapsing ceilings. Matthew Christopher, an urban explorer who lives in Manayunk and has published two books of his work (he didn’t personally know Bunting), said he’s on several occasions stepped through floors or on top of a nail, admitting that he’s entered buildings well-traveled by urban explorers that were “objectively stupid” to be inside.
Still, each explorer, he said, finds his or her own justification.
“Nobody is doing enough to really document these spaces and share them with other people,” he said, “and allow for a public eulogy and an acknowledgment of their significance.”
He said he’s attracted to the preservation aspect of exploration — of paying homage to a place lost to time. Others have different reasons. Roberto Augustin, a 52-year-old explorer from Brooklyn who once met Bunting inside an abandoned church in the Bronx, said he uses exploration as a means of connecting with the past.
“This is perhaps our way of coping,” he said, “with the uncertainty of our time right now.”
Bradley L. Garrett, a cultural geographer based at the University of Sydney, has studied urban exploration and hypothesizes that urban explorers foray into architecture that’s typically off-limits as a means of “reacting to increased surveillance and control over urban space” in search of “unregulated areas where they can build personal relationships to places.”
Whatever Bunting’s reason, her friends said she lived for photographing spaces others might overlook while connecting with like-minded explorers. And her family said those connections were made easier by a personality they described as “electric.”
“Everything about her was this positive energy,” Fluharty said.
Her photos are in some ways now giving her friends and family solace.
“We’re always going to have Becca’s photos and the photos we took of her,” Weiss said. “Becca is going to live forever because of this.”
Weiss said Bunting’s greatest gift was her ability to find elegance in decay — to show strength in something others might see as broken. Perhaps, her friends said, maybe she even could find beauty in death.
Four days before she died, Bunting posted a photo of a sun setting between grand, amber archways.
“If there is life after death,” she wrote, “I want to come back as a sunset. Ain’t much else more beautiful than that.”
Editor’s note: This story was revised to correct the day Bunting died.