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
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.
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
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
Could the terrorist attacks mean that builders should Consider new
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,
broke, living by himself in a rural area about 30 miles outside Mexico
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
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
optimistic for success here.
³I have no money. I canıt go to America,² he said. ³Iım