It’s a scenario that resonates with too many sleep-deprived New Yorkers. A truck containing explosives is driven through barricades into the underground garage of a tall office building. Smoke and flames seem to envelop the corridors, stairways and elevator shafts of the building. In a conference room on the 30th floor, a group of co-workers meets to discuss the situation. No escape seems possible.
But the scenario gets an unexpected twist. In a video available on the Web site of Safir Rosetti, a security and intelligence firm headed up by the partnership of Howard Safir, a former Police Commissioner and Fire Commissioner, and Joseph Rosetti, former security czar for I.B.M., the office workers have a last-resort option: the ResQLine.
“The Safir Rosetti ResQLine is a high-volume evacuation solution designed to minimize loss of life and injury in cases of fire, terrorist attack or other life-threatening situations where civilians and emergency responders are otherwise unable to escape imminent harm,” Mr. Safir’s voice incants in a monotone as the computer-animated figures swirl across the screen.
Developed by a small upstart firm in New Jersey, the ResQLine is a system for evacuating the upper stories of a compromised building. Office workers are outfitted with special harnesses; a box under a window is removed to reveal a mechanism that unfolds twice. One flap unfolds to the left to reveal six spools of blue cable affixed to spindles. Another unfolds from the top and over the window sill, providing a small, two-step ladder out into the sky above the city streets. Left under the window is what looks like a box fan with a large empty spindle protruding from its center. The first evacuee attaches one end of one of the spools to his harness. An emergency coordinator pulls the spool from its spindle on the left and affixes it to the fan-like structure. The evacuee climbs onto the window sill-and jumps.
According to the device’s makers, the fan mechanism relies on the force of the blades generated by the evacuee’s descent to create a dynamic tension that slows the speed of the fall. In the video, evacuees are shown landing light as a feather on the sidewalk outside their buildings. A slight bend at the knees upon landing is the only register of the force of their descent. One almost pictures the evacuees in the video, as they make their several landings, skipping off to a Pret A Manger together for a quick bite to eat.
The Underwriters Laboratory (purveyors of those ubiquitous “UL” stickers) has approved the ResQLine for use in buildings of any height for occupants weighing as much as 400 pounds. The units themselves will sell for about $3,500 each; office workers would have their own harnesses and cable cartridges, which they may buy outright for around $200 or lease for $6 a month.
The catch: Major emergency-management authorities consider the product to offer an inadvisable form of escape from a tall building.
“We have not supported any of these devices,” Fire Department spokesman David Billig told The Observer . “We have not supported any device that’s being sold where the manufacturer tells you, ‘Use this to jump out the window.’ We don’t advocate these devices. We haven’t tested them, we don’t use them.”
“In theory, they are interesting ideas,” said Robert Solomon, assistant vice president for building and life safety codes for the National Fire Protection Association, referring to ResQLine and all other “external evacuation” devices. “And then, in the practical world, they are not going to function the way you think they are. These are systems that the NFPA would still not recognize in our codes.”
Mr. Safir noted the Underwriters Laboratory finding. “We’re working to get the New York Fire Department to test it,” Mr. Safir said. “Because as they know and I know, once you get above the 10th floor, if you have a fully evolved fire, the people above are virtually unreachable.”
The difference of opinion between the Fire Department and its former commissioner highlights a growing ambivalence about the ability of a property owner or government officials to ensure that there will be no repeat of the hellish circumstances in which inhabitants of the upper stories of the World Trade Center found themselves on the morning of Sept. 11. The emergence of “external-evacuation devices” like ResQLine and its relatives, such as the Executive-Chute (parachutes designed to allow people to jump out windows at least 10 stories high) and the German-made Escape Chute (a long, double-layered fabric tube that hangs from a window to the ground), demonstrates just how little officials can do to protect the residents of tall office buildings under attack by terrorists. But in the sometimes morbid calculus of security services, if nobody can guarantee your safety, anybody can address that last, desperate moment that is, today, more vivid than ever before.
“[Sept. 11] changed the world entirely,” said Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association. “It has exposed the vulnerability of the United States to attacks. I don’t believe-whether we’re talking about skyscrapers, tunnels, bridges-that we are going to be able to plan for every single potential form of attack.”
Mr. Safir and his firm are careful to note that the ResQLine escape system is meant only as a last resort, when stairs and elevators are unavailable and there is no promise of rescue. “It was invented in response to that horrible scene of people jumping off the World Trade Center,” Mr. Safir said. “[The inventor] said, ‘Let me come up with a device that will be an alternative to committing suicide.’ That’s what this device is. It is a last-resort device that works.”
“There were 374 documented jumps from the World Trade Center,” Mr. Safir continued. “And if ResQLine were there, some of those people might be alive.”
It is difficult to argue that certain death is more attractive than attempting an escape with ResQLine-but at the same time, the ResQLine escape is far from easy.
In promotional literature, makers of the product claim that landing on the ground from a height of as much as 80 stories would feel like the landing from a leap off a 22-inch chair. Experiments, the makers of ResQLine say, have verified this claim.
But it’s the journey from window to ground, rather than the arrival, that worries many skeptics.
“How on earth does somebody get on a pulley with a cable, with broken glass, aluminum, marble and concrete falling on top of them?” said Mr. Solomon of the NFPA. “It’s just another in a bad series of choices that people would have to make.”
“Of course it could be dangerous,” Mr. Safir responded. “But the reality is that if your alternative is to stay and die, or get out, even if you did have a minor injury getting out, isn’t it a better alternative? … So, yeah, is there a possibility someone could injure themselves on the way down? Sure-probably not, but possibly so. It certainly beats being dead.”
The ultimate test of the device won’t take place until, or if, there is another high-rise attack or a tragedy, like a fire. In the meantime, the city’s Department of Buildings has been hammering out recommendations for building-code changes that would make emergency exits through stairs and elevators more secure. Rehabilitating older buildings may be difficult, but at least, the reasoning goes, new buildings will be that much stronger and escapable. Whether the political will exists to enact those building-code changes and enforce them remains to be seen.
“I think until our society at large decides that they want the engineering community and design community to start designing buildings for these extreme events, like airplanes flying into a building, there wouldn’t be any place for these types of devices to be used,” Mr. Solomon said.
The conclusion is particularly sobering in light of a federal investigation into the cause of the Twin Towers’ collapse. The blue-ribbon panel heard its first round of testimony in the United States Customs House in Lower Manhattan on March 28.
The panel, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, was created by Congress last year to conduct a broad investigation into the attacks of Sept. 11 and the intelligence and other government failures before them.
The panel’s staff of 50 to 60 will draft a report by May 2004. But the central question facing the panel is: Why did so many die in the attacks? The panel will consider such things as lax immigration controls, faulty intelligence procedures and the lack of disaster planning. But it will also examine how residents are evacuated from high-rise buildings; how those buildings are constructed to protect against sabotage and collapse; and why so few could be rescued from the upper stories of the World Trade Center.
Such questions signal a shift in the assumptions of many New Yorkers, who are now demanding a full inquiry and accountability as they anticipate possible future disasters. New Yorkers know better than anybody what it must have been like on the upper floors of the World Trade Center after the attack. Thousands of New Yorkers are instructed to be aware of their environment even as they make daily trips into the upper stories of the city’s most prominent skyscrapers. With the war on Iraq escalating and Black Hawks buzzing over Manhattan, the tension in the city is palpable.
As a result, the media consistently seek to interpret the meaning of alert levels and of the vague threats that send emergency-management and counterterrorism task forces into high gear-and frequently, to do so, they turn to people like Mr. Safir.
The former commissioner currently serves as a security analyst for the Fox News network. During his Jan. 19 appearance on Fox Wire , reporter Rita Cosby asked whether there would be an ever-increasing and visible apparatus to prevent terror attacks.
“Of course,” Mr. Safir told her. “There’s no question in the mind of people involved in this business that there’s going to be another attack.”
Asked about a then-recent F.B.I. report claiming that there was little Al Qaeda activity in North America, Mr. Safir said he was “surprised.”
“We found cells in Buffalo. We’ve found cells in other areas,” he said. “And there’s no question that there are sleeper cells throughout the United States. And certainly, Al Qaeda is capable of activating them.”
Asked whether the “heartland” was being viewed in the intelligence community as a potential target of terrorist attacks, Mr. Safir was somewhat circumspect.
“Of course New York is a major target, as are other major cities, because they’re media centers,” he said. “But certainly I think the next attacks, unfortunately, are going to be more widespread, going to hit the heartland of America as well as the big cities, and probably will be multiple attacks.”
More recently, in a Feb. 11 interview with Pat Buchanan on MSNBC, Mr. Safir was asked whether the level of alert in New York City should be raised to red.
“I think, without specific information, you have to stay at orange,” Mr. Safir said. “But, de facto, we’re at red. De facto, we have put all the resources available in the city on a terrorist alert. And I think the reality is that we believe that this country is going to get hit again. I think people in the government believe that. And it’s a question of where and not when.”
Responding to a question from Mr. Buchanan about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s urging the city to work and play as they normally would-even after the report of a potential threat to the subway system appeared in the New York Post -Mr. Safir appeared skeptical.
“Well, I think the reality is that nobody has specific information about chemical or biological weapons being put into the subways, but there is always that possibility,” he told Mr. Buchanan. “I mean, we have experience in the fact that the sarin attack in Japan killed 12 people and injured hundreds. And it’s certainly a possibility, and something that we have to be prepared for. I don’t think there’s a city in the world that has more emergency-response capability than New York City, but it’s still not enough for what we’re faced with.”
If the media haven’t often reflected on the conundrum of seeking information from a source that determines the value of the product he sells, Mr. Safir has.
There shouldn’t be any problem with the practice, he said, “as long as you’re straightforward and honest. I insist that they put under my name, ‘chairman and chief executive of Safir Rosetti.’ I make sure that they make it clear that I’m in the security business. And they put ‘former Police Commissioner,’ because that’s why they want me.”
Mr. Safir said that Safir Rosetti has begun putting ResQLine in buildings in Israel and San Francisco, and is currently negotiating with several New York companies to install the product, though he declined to specify which ones. Meanwhile, since Sept. 11, his firm has grown to six offices in six different cities in the U.S. and abroad.
Mr. Safir is not the only former city official to make his way in private life as a security consultant in the wake of Sept. 11, or to appear on television to assess the level of threat that the general public confronts.
Rudolph Giuliani’s firm, Giuliani Partners, has taken aggressive steps to market itself as a security consultant to property owners in New York City and elsewhere. The firm recently completed an alliance with the Los Angeles–based real-estate brokerage and management powerhouse CB Richard Ellis, which upped the ante in New York by acquiring the city’s largest brokerage, Insignia Financial. The alliance capitalizes on the experience that Mr. Giuliani and many key partners in his firm-including former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and former Fire Commissioner Thomas von Essen-gained on Sept. 11 and in the weeks afterwards. That marketing strategy appears to have been pursued further in Giuliani Partners’ other recent alliance with Aon Corporation, the British-based insurer with a reputable private-intelligence arm.
But Mr. Giuliani is considerably less shrill in evaluating government responses to the terrorist threat. Asked about the run on cellophane and duct tape during the most recent chemical-attack scare, Mr. Giuliani echoed Mayor Bloomberg and others in his assessment of the situation.
In an appearance on Hannity & Colmes on Fox News on March 3, Mr. Giuliani was asked, “Have we been oversold on duct tape?”
“Not oversold,” the former Mayor said. “But I mean, the reality is, there are more complex answers to it. And I guess, if it makes people feel better …. ”
“But does it do anything?” Mr. Colmes interjected.
“I guess under limited circumstances it does, but it’s certainly not the answer,” he responded. “The answer is preparation at the government level, large institutions focusing on drills and exercises, and the things that you have to do in large groups to protect people.”
Mr. Safir said his dire pronouncements are not meant to instill a climate where his services seem more indispensable.
“I believe [that another attack is imminent] based on knowledge that I have. I don’t believe that based on speculation; I base that on information I have from various sources. What I try to do when I’m on TV is not let people lose their resolve, because I truly believe that the reason that we’ve not been hit yet is because we’re faced with a patient and well-funded and well-trained enemy, and they are waiting for us to lose our resolve so they can hit us again.
“And that’s the message that I’m trying to get out: that it will never and should not be business as usual.”