News & Politics

WTC Survivors: Saving Themselves, Others


It’s about the shoes, says Professor Ed Galea, in New York this week from the University of Greenwich to interview people who made it out of the twin towers on 9-11. All those women’s high-heels that people saw littering the stairwells were but a colorful detail in most retellings of the day. For Galea, however, the shoes scream danger—and a need for new thinking about how to protect people in high-rises.

Galea and a band of other behavioral psychologists are here, as they will be for 36 weeks in the next year, attempting to interview 2,000 survivors from World Trade Center 1 and 2 to learn the details of their trips to safety (when they started to evacuate and why, whether they traveled in groups, how large the crowds were on the stairs, and so on) in hopes of influencing building codes to make high rises safer places to work, live, and—in an emergency—leave.

A veteran of disaster studies, Galea tells the Voice that the interviews so far appear to contradict many prevailing assumptions about how people evacuate buildings—the assumptions underlying current regulations governing how those buildings are built. For example, engineers around the world think most people start to evacuate in an emergency about two minutes after they learn of the incident. In the towers, however, folks in some cases lingered at their desks or the windows for an hour. Simply put, if true, that changes everything, from the volume of people the stairwells must accept to how long the fireproofing has to last.

Galea and company are approaching the issue differently than the National Institute for Standards and Technology, which did far fewer face-to-face interviews. Galea’s study allows survivors to relate what happened in their own words. Survivors can stop the interviews at any time, and there are counselors on hand to help manage the pain of reviving these memories, if necessary.

But for the study—which has the blessing of the New York fire and building departments—to succeed, Galea and team need to hear from more survivors. So far, only 300 have signed on. For more information, go to And if you wear high heels and work in a high-rise, either bring a pair of “sensible shoes” with you to change into in case of an emergency, or carry the high heels down. You don’t want other people to trip on your stilettos, and you never know what lurks below that might be tough on bare feet.


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