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Article published by the New York  Sun
Last week of April 2002
written by Miss Rachel Kovner journalist at the New York  Sun

Please see Letter to the editor of the New York Sun asking for my right of response to the official rebukes reported in the article of Miss Rachel Kovner published by the New York Sun some weeks ago.
 



NEW YORK As safety experts look for ways to protect skyscrapers from terrorism, one self-taught inventor is telling anyone who will listen that heıs had the answer for more than two decades.

Gerard Zephinie, 59, is the proud inventor of the Zephinie Escape Chute, a device that enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1970s and has Been installed in buildings in Europe and Asia, but which has never been
manufactured or sold in the United States. The chutes are still manufactured by the French and Spanish subsidiaries of Otis Elevator Company, but American safety experts call them unproven at best.

The devices lack of success here has never been for a lack Of trying on Mr. Zephinieıs part, but since Sept. 11, the French inventor Has made a full-time job of declaring that the chutes could have saved
Thousands of lives in the World Trade Center attacks. In one press release, he Says that more than 80% of those who died in the towers could have escaped in a matter of minutes if four or five of his escape chutes had been installed in the building.

Mr. Zephinie estimates that since Sept. 11, he has sent 4,800 such releases to reporters, in a translation from his native French that does not always inspire confidence. (³This is not the exclamation of a
quixotic crackpot who has invented a miraculous Mickey Mouse like evacuation system over the weekend in his garage,² the release says.)

He hasnıt gotten what he hopes for a contract with a Company to make the chutes in the United States, or at least a public demonstration. But the World Trade Center attacks have spurred him to give marketing The chute another try.

³Iım not a guy that can cry, but when I saw the TV, my eyes were was full of water,² Mr. Zephinie said in a phone conversation from Mexico, where he now lives. ³After that happened, I stopped working again. I Was just disgusted.²

Mr. Zephinieıs chute, a series of interlocking, body-hugging sleeves that stretch to allow entry, is based on the idea of using friction and elastic pressure to permit those on upper floors of a building to
slide their way to safety below. Mr. Zephinie boasts the devices allow faster evacuation rates than stairs as many as 2,000 people an hour but still limit evacuees speeds to two meters per second. Evacuees can stop or slow by spreading arms or legs.

A test model of the chute, constructed in 1973, was one of The first uses of the Kevlar fibers now found in bullet-proof vests and was manufactured with help from Dupont. An exterior sleeve is made of heat
resistant fiberglass.

The invention received write-ups in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, among other publications. Mr. Zephinie boasts that it has Been installed in thousands of buildings abroad.

In the U.S., however, the chutes have been met with skepticism. Mr. Zephinie unsuccessfully sought meetings to discuss the chute with Fire officials in New York in the 1970s, and well as with fire safety
Company executives and officials from the World Trade Center.

After the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, another escape chute devotee, Larry Pines, wrote to Mayor Dinkins to recommend installing the technology in the towers. Heıd seen the chutes in a
Discovery Channel special. Pines received a letter back from the fire department politely declining his suggestion. ³If the department decides to look at this chute device we will have our Research and Development Unit contact you,² reads the letter, signed by Fire Department Chief of Operations
Donald J. Burns.

Mr. Zephinie is convinced that his device hasnıt caught on because fire safety companies make more money selling sprinklers than they could selling the chutes. (He calls the chutes inexpensive to produce, and said they sell for about $200 a yard.) And local governments, he argues, are wedded to fire safety codes that stress extinguishing fires, rather than evacuating buildings.

But U.S. fire officials doubt the chutes would work in a high-rise fire. The technology has never been used in a building approaching the World Trade Centerıs 116 stories. Its highest installations include
a 35 story building in Madrid and a 60 story tower in Korea, said Mr. Zephinie.
Although used in the buildings of 11 governments worldwide, according to Mr. Zephinie, it has never undergone testing in the United States.

A safety consultant who runs the Building Use and Safety Institute, Jake Pauls, said a chute system would require special training to operate, Have trouble evacuating many people, and risk catching on fire.

³Itıs not very reasonable and itıs not very common, either,² he said. ³To expect it to be used in case of emergency is a real stretch.²


The life safety code published by the National Fire Protection Association a nationwide standard says the devices havenıt been proven safe or effective.
A senior fire engineer at the group, Greg Harrington, said studies have shown sprinkler systems and enclosed stairwells are the best way of saving lives in fires. But he said those measures are intended to protect against single source fires, not World Trade Center-scale
disasters.


Could the terrorist attacks mean that builders should Consider new solutions?

³Those are real tough questions that I think societyıs going to have to grapple with. We could write our codes to require our buildings to have all sorts of redundant super-expensive safety type features,² said
Mr. Harrington. ³Technical committees will have to address that in future editions of the life safety code. For building owners today, there really is no easy type answer.²

Mr. Zephinie said heıs not sure what his next step will be. He said he Made several million dollars through investments in the 1980s, then lost the money in a failed restaurant business in Majorca. Now, he said, heıs
broke, living by himself in a rural area about 30 miles outside Mexico City.

His other major invention, a V-shaped ergonomic workstation, has not been a commercial success. One evaluator saw the workstationıs reclining design and called it ³indecent,² Mr. Zephinie said. ³Again I
was in trouble with conservatism.²

But the escape chute was the proudest achievement of the inventor, who said he learned most of what he knows by reading books and taking night classes. He dropped out of a college program in electronic
engineering because it was ³too long.²

He believes that if only Americans saw the chutes in action, theyıd Demand that high-rises have them the same public relations strategy that he Said led to their installation in public buildings in France. But heıs not
optimistic for success here.

³I have no money. I canıt go to America,² he said. ³Iım exhausted.²


 

 

 

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