A Terrifying Vision Of Towering Infernos

Voices mighty and obscure are having their say about what ought to rise on the former World Trade Center site, but few speak with the passion and knowledge of Vincent Dunn. Mr. Dunn is neither an engineer nor an architect. He doesn’t represent the grieving families. He is not part of a civic group, a development corporation or an advocacy organization.

Mr. Dunn is a firefighter. More than that, he’s a retired deputy chief who was, and remains, the Fire Department of New York’s expert on building collapses. Without sounding in the least immodest, Mr. Dunn says he knows more about the inside of a high-rise building than most architects and engineers. He backs up that kind of talk with scholarly publishing credits dating back to the 1970’s, when he wrote his first article about building collapses.

On the matter of the Memorial Garden versus the Memorial Promenade versus the Memorial Park, etc., Mr. Dunn offers no opinion. On the matter of how the World Trade Center’s eventual replacements are built, Mr. Dunn has a great deal to say. And he’s the only one making arguments from the perspective of the men and women who will run into those buildings when (not if) they catch fire.

“We’ve spent the last 40 years softening buildings,” the chief said. “By that, I mean we’ve been taking away concrete and making buildings lighter. We’ve done away with masonry enclosures of steel columns, and we’ve replaced concrete with Sheetrock in stairways. We know that fire resistance is directly related to the mass of a structure. But we’ve spent 40 years removing mass from buildings.”

Mr. Dunn’s notion of a fire-resistant high-rise building is the Empire State Building, a structure that would never be built in its current form today. Developers would look at all that concrete, run a few numbers and conclude that it’s simply too expensive.

It’s an argument fire chiefs have heard for decades in New York: that fire safety is just too darn expensive-and besides, chief, what are the odds, anyway? Tenement-house owners in the late 19th century and factory owners in the early 20th century resisted the Fire Department’s demands for better construction, stricter codes and even fire escapes (which were condemned as too ugly for those fancy-looking tenements), saying such measures would drive up the costs of construction.

“This is New York; this is a bottom-line, client-driven town,” said Mr. Dunn, by way of explaining why voices like his are so often dismissed.

The chief believes that future tragedies are inevitable as long as developers continue to build soft buildings with little to prevent a high-rise fire from spreading to an adjacent story. Until the immediate postwar years, solid construction methods helped contain high-rise fires to the fire floor. That all changed when a fire at 1 New York Plaza in 1970 spread beyond the fire floor, signaling an end to the days when high-rise fires could be easily contained.

“You look at the housing projects we built, which people like Jane Jacobs said were terrible,” Mr. Dunn said. “I sometimes asked people who were burned out of tenements where they’d rather live, and they said the projects, because you never saw a two-story fire in a housing project. You never saw a project collapse in a fire.”

Now, however, residential and commercial high-rises are catastrophes in the making, Mr. Dunn said. “We should have a zero-tolerance policy for buildings without sprinklers, but we don’t. In today’s office buildings, you’ll find 20,000 or 30,000 square feet of open floor space, which allows fire to spread. A team of firefighters with a hose line can extinguish about 2,500 square feet-that’s it.”

Mr. Dunn has been preaching about high-rise fire safety for years, most recently at a City Council hearing a few weeks ago. What’s shocking is that some of his recommendations are not already mandatory-for example, his demand that the building code require regular evacuation drills so fire-safety directors know how long it takes to get everybody out of a given building. Mr. Dunn believes high-rise buildings should have smoke-proof stairways for use in a fire or a terrorist attack. To which the only reply can be: You mean this is not a requirement now?

“Fire safety has been put in the background for years now,” Mr. Dunn said. “The builders, the architects, the engineers-they all bear responsibility. They’ve all been pushing the envelope. The World Trade Center was the ultimate envelope-push.”

Fire chiefs have a wonderful record of spotting potential tragedies. They also have a long history of being dismissed as cranks … until the tragedies come to pass.

· Due to an editing error, an incorrect byline was placed on this column last week. The guilty parties are recovering in a local hospital.

A Terrifying Vision Of Towering Infernos