Inventor hopes Evacuchute will save lives

January 20, 2003|By KEVIN COWHERD

HERE'S A CHEERY situation to envision: You're trapped on one of the upper floors of a burning high-rise building, cut off from the stairs and the rescue workers below, no other way to evacuate.

It looks like curtains.

What do you do?

In my case, the answer is simple: I don't worry about it, since I'm already dead of a heart attack.

But Jeremy Ireland's answer is: Leap out a window and parachute to safety.

Specifically, use a low-altitude parachute called an Evacuchute, made by his Los Angeles-based company, Emergency Evacuation Systems.

The Evacuchute, said Ireland, opens in less than 1.5 seconds, has special air vents that move you forward and away from the building and can be easily steered to a safe landing.

And it's designed specifically for someone who's never used a parachute before, which would include, oh, just about every rational being on the planet.

As crazy as it sounds, though, the Evacuchute is no joke.

Ireland, 34, began working on the idea after seeing the horrific footage of people leaping to their deaths from New York's Twin Towers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Everyone was saying how horrible it was," said Ireland over the phone from his office. "The difference was, I was in a position and place to immediately help."

When the World Trade Center was attacked, Ireland had just formed a company that specialized in equipment for extreme sports that used parachutes, such as kite-boarding.

But he said he quickly switched his focus to developing the ultimate "last-resort evacuation system" for residents and office workers trapped in the upper reaches of a high-rise.

Ireland admits he's not the first guy to come up with the idea. And in the aftermath of Sept. 11, several companies have attempted to market evacuation parachutes.

"Leonardo da Vinci actually drew schematics and had the idea of people jumping from tall buildings with a parachute," Ireland said. "It's common sense."

Well, maybe.

But wouldn't most people be paralyzed at the thought of throwing a chair through a window on, say, the 85th floor of a burning skyscraper and leaping out into thin air -- even with a parachute?

"Of course, people would be extremely scared," he said. "But they'd be even more terrified if they were trapped" by fire and smoke.

Ireland said Evacuchute, designed in consultation with the Czech Republic military, is the only chute of its kind to be tested by live jumpers.

And apparently all of them landed in one piece, which is good.

In fact, if you log onto the company's Web site -- www.evacuchute.com -- you can access a video of the Evacuchute in action.

(This is neither here nor there, but who in their right mind volunteers to be a parachute-tester? Would you go for it if someone approached you and said: "Look, we've got this new parachute, OK? It may or may not work. I mean, we tested it with a dummy and everything. But now we need a real person. What do you say, big guy?")

Anyway, in the Evacuchute video, a man takes a running leap from the roof of a tall building and launches himself into the sky.

From a camera on the roof, we see the tether behind him. (The Evacuchute activates by a static line that can be tied to a desk leg or other anchor point for hands-free deployment. This strikes me as a major plus, since I'd imagine when you're tumbling through the air from 900 feet for the first time, you'd tend to get a little jittery and maybe forget to deploy your chute.)

But the chute deploys just fine, and the descent seems gradual and controlled. Best of all, the guy doesn't corkscrew into the ground on the landing.

According to its Web site, the Evacuchute has been tested to safely deploy from as low as 130 feet -- approximately 13 floors above ground level.

Right now, said Ireland, the Evacuchute is selling for $1,500. He said that in the four months the company has been up and running, it has sold 30 chutes and is generating lots of interest.

Driving that interest, of course, are the searing images of falling bodies from the Sept. 11 attacks.

All these months later, Ireland hopes some good can come from that horrible day, maybe in the form of new methods to safely evacuate people trapped in tall buildings.

"I look at [Sept. 11] as a life lesson," he said. "It's like the Titanic. Those are two major disasters where many people lost their lives and ... new technology developed.

"With the Titanic, no one thought it was important for lifeboats and lifejackets to be on steamships back then." Then the big, seemingly indestructible ocean liner hit an iceberg, and that thinking changed forever.

By having the Evacuchute, he said, if you live or work in a high-rise building, "at least you'd have that peace of mind and reassurance."

And if the unthinkable were to happen, a catastrophic event that left you trapped and terrified hundreds of feet up in the air, "at least you'd have a chance to live."

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