The old, decaying buildings on the grounds of the closed Kings Park Psychiatric Center have lured curiosity seekers for a decade.
Some go on a dare--to climb to the top of Building 93, or stuff themselves in the refrigerated drawers of the old morgue. Others say they have a documentarian's duty to record the buildings' ravages with cameras.
Still others enter the buildings to steal precious copper pipes for resale, vandalize fixtures or scrawl graffiti on walls.
No matter the motive, authorities say all are trespassing, and taking risks with their health and safety, citing such dangers as asbestos and lead paint contamination.
State parks police said they have issued 231 violations this year (2009), more than three-quarters for trespassing. In addition, they have made 17 arrests for the more serious charges of criminal trespassing - for entering the buildings - and grand larceny, for the theft of materials.
"It's a serious concern to us," said Maj. Richard O'Donnell, adding that his department recently has stepped up patrols. "They are putting themselves and our members at risk."
The biggest worry, officials said, is the abundance of loose asbestos and peeling lead paint. Criminals with power tools and generators are ripping out copper piping, scattering the dusty asbestos that once wrapped the pipes, said Steven Weber, a Kings Park historian and community activist who has been researching the issue.
The carcinogenic dust is then left for others to walk through and the hazardous particles often get stuck on clothes and hair, he said.
The most affected area, Weber said, is the massive network of underground steam tunnels that connect the buildings, a favorite for thrill seekers.
"They get it on their clothes and then they're going home and getting into bed," said state parks spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee, adding that the department recently put fences around the most tempting buildings and boarded up windows to make access more difficult. "There's just the enormity of it. It's really a challenge to keep the kids out."
The fate of the former psychiatric center has been in limbo since it closed in 1993. Owned by the state, it has been under contract to be sold several times, only to have the deals fall through because of protests by the community, which feared overdevelopment. In 1999, 193 waterfront acres were carved out of the 500-acre property and turned into Nissequogue River State Park. At the end of 2006, the rest of the land also was transferred to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, but it's been unclear whether it will remain parkland.
Weber said until the fate of the site is decided, the state should install video cameras and shut down the tunnels. "It's a vital conduit through the system," he said. "Just brick it up."
Both the state police and Kings Park school district are considering sending literature home to parents warning them of the dangers, O'Donnell said. Parks police plan to step up patrols on Halloween.
Videos posted on the popular Web site YouTube, and distributed to the media by the school district, show kids rappelling off the sides of the buildings. Other hazards, Weber said, are wild animals in the buildings and collapsed floors.
"There are so many risks," said Kings Park schools superintendent Martin Brooks. "You don't want your children to be there. It's not safe."