Tower Tales

Hoping to make buildings safer, scientists want to talk to WTC survivors

Buildings might not be ready for that. "The real issue is, no high-rise building anywhere in the world is designed for a full evacuation," says Galea. Instead, engineers expect big buildings to be evacuated in phases. "We cannot continue to build with that assumption," Galea adds. "Can you expect people to evacuate in a phased manner after 9-11?"

Galea's been studying emergencies for 20 years. He helped assemble a database of 2,000 reports from airplane accidents, and his research center's website offers animations of people fleeing hypothetical boat sinkings and real-life stuff like a 1998 disco fire in Sweden. Galea interviewed survivors of a 1999 rail disaster in London and is trying to learn more about the 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island. It's made him careful. "In an airplane, I don't want to be more than seven seats away from an exit," he says. "In high-rise buildings, I will always check the evacuation route." He always carries a protective smoke hood and sits facing backward on trains.

But the WTC survivor study isn't motivated by morbid curiosity. "It's not just for science. It's to improve regulations around the world," Galea says. "Building codes for too long have been shaped around what engineers think people do in evacuations and what engineers want people to do."

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  • Few things sound as dreadfully dull as the New York City Building Code, but its minutiae can have life-or-death consequences. The Port Authority is exempt from the code but says the WTC was designed according to the city's guidelines anyway. So changes to the code during the '60s altered the plan for the towers. For example, there were fewer staircases than first planned, narrower doors, no specially constructed fire stairwells, and thinner fireproofing on some walls. The building code also regulates how far apart exits must be—which can be crucial. The reason some people in the south tower escaped from above the impact zone is that United Flight 175 struck where the staircases were far apart. In the north tower, American Flight 11 hit where the exits were clumped close together, destroying all the passages. The NIST estimates that if the towers had been full at the moment of the 9-11 attacks, 14,000 people would have died—with 7,700 trapped above the impact zone.

    The question is whether Galea's findings, due in late 2007, really will have a chance to influence building design here. New York City is revising its building and fire codes, but that process is nearing an end. The Freedom Tower has already been designed and redesigned. WTC 7 is already signing up tenants.

    But it's not as if the threat to high-rises will go away soon. Pauls, the evacuation consultant, began studying building evacuations in Ottawa in the '70s because of a fear of terrorism—namely from the Quebecois separatists. Threats come and go. For most working stiffs, a Chinese proverb that Pauls quotes is instructive: "Of the 39 ways to escape danger, running away is best."

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