WASHINGTON - Future escapees from high-rise disasters might find themselves hurtling to safety down giant, inflated chutes if a well-connected Israeli company makes good on its invention.
The Advanced Modular Evacuation System, which looks like a giant elephant trunk hanging down from a building, is intended to rescue people who are stuck above the reach of a hook-and-ladder. According to its manufacturer, upgrades of the device someday could rescue people from 100 floors above the street.
The chute, made of a tough, Kevlar-type fabric with ribs of coiled steel, inflates out a building's window and swoops like a slide to the ground. Evacuees' silhouettes can be seen as they swish through the tube to the ground. The curve of the chute becomes more gradual at the bottom, slowing the escapee's descent.
"It doesn't hurt at all," Ofir Primo said after dropping from the ninth floor of the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington during a demonstration yesterday. Primo is the technical manager for Advanced Evacuation System, the company that developed the chute.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a board member who attended the demonstration, said fire safety systems for America's tall buildings were inadequate.
"I am confident it can save lives. I can hardly think of something more timely," he said.
Since the World Trade Center attack, exotic suggestions of ways to escape from high-rises have poured in to U.S. emergency-preparedness organizations. Among them are many chute proposals and zany ideas such as equipping office chairs with parachutes.
The Israeli chute predates the World Trade Center attack, however. Inventor Eli Nir watched a fire break out in 2000 in a hotel in which his 8-year-old son was trapped on the eighth floor. His son survived, and his chute concept ensued.
"It took me two weeks to think about it and two and a half years to do this," Nir said.
The first marketable prototype is 150 feet long and costs about $20,000.
Chutes for taller buildings are "in the idea stage," Primo said. At its current length and design, 15 people a minute can escape via the chute, Primo said.
Innovative escape devices have been around for years, said Larry Anderson, a deputy chief in the Dallas Fire and Rescue Department. Among them are mesh fabric chutes known as socks that unroll when needed, and rappelling devices that enable escapees to be lowered down the sides of buildings.
Anderson compared the AMES chutes to those that unfurl from aircraft in emergencies. Escapes employing them sometimes result in sprained ankles and broken legs, he said, "but anything is favorable to having nothing."
High-rise escape devices rarely are needed because interior stairwells and sprinkler systems generally are very effective, according to Arthur E. Cote, executive vice president and chief engineer of the National Fire Protection Association, based in Quincy, Mass.
In the World Trade Center attack, many interior stairwells were blocked, trapping occupants on higher floors.