The Great Escape

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

In a Tel Aviv suburb last month, a company called Escape Rescue Systems demonstrated its first skyscraper-evacuation elevator for a group of American officials. From the ground outside the 21-story building, the device was invisible, coiled and concealed on the roof. But as the motorized cabins sprang into action, the Americans erupted in oohs and aahs. If the building were on fire and the stairwells were blocked, two of these external elevators could evacuate 300 people every eight minutes. The cost for this kind of post-9/11 peace of mind? About $2 million to outfit a 40-story building.

A few weeks later, project manager Giyora Barkol stands on the roof next to the device and looks out over the Tel Aviv skyline. “Tel Aviv doesn’t interest us,” he says. “Our market is with the real high-rises—the ones in Manhattan.”

Since 9/11, Israel has become the world leader in skyscraper-evacuation equipment, capitalizing on its firsthand experience with terrorism. And manufacturers there have been desperate to catch the attention of New Yorkers. Back in 2002, former prime minister Ehud Barak even popped up on American TV hawking an inflatable evacuation slide. The Sleeve, as it is known, did not catch on; the angle required for safe descent is too wide for Manhattan’s canyons. But now the Israelis are back with external elevators, helicopter rescue baskets, rappelling devices, and personal parachutes.

Escape has been lobbying hard to get its elevator approved for use in New York, even flying in Councilwoman Yvette Clarke, chair of the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, for the demo, and hiring Bruce Teitelbaum, Rudy Giuliani’s former chief of staff, to navigate city bureaucracy. Escape’s efforts seem to be paying off. The company recently signed a deal to supply its evacuation system to one of the largest real-estate firms in New York (it won’t say which one). Escape claims its shiny escape pods will be installed on a skyscraper in midtown by early fall.

Escape estimates that 95 percent of Manhattan’s skyscrapers can use the system. Height doesn’t matter; larger buildings simply require more devices. (Escape claims that if the World Trade Center had had four or five systems per tower, most of the people on the floors above the impact zone on 9/11 could have been saved.) But the system needs 430 square feet of roof space in order to operate. And that means our tallest building is out of luck. As Barkol says sheepishly, “We couldn’t do it on the Empire State Building.”

(1)When the command is sent via wireless remote, the escape pods swing out and swiftly descend.

(2)The pods expand like accordions into five fireproof cabins that take firefighters to the danger zone.

(3)Each pod can evacuate 30 people at a time. Tenants exit the building through specially configured windows.

(4)The cycle of transporting responders and evacuating tenants is repeated as needed.

The Great Escape