How People Will Be Saved In A Future "9/11"

This entry was posted by Sunday, 19 April, 2009
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Highrize Lifeboat.
Drawing by me.

Stephen Hawkings
I said that I would describe our system for extracting people from a damaged high rise building, but, first: Stephen Hawkings.

Dr. Hawkings, according to the wire services, has been taken to the hospital in very bad shape. This is really awful news. Dr. Hawkings is one of a handful of people who have qualities that truly surpass belief. As a very young man, and at the start of his career as a theoretical physicist, Hawkings developed symptoms of “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” which disabled him to the point that he needed a specially designed console that, word-by-word, articulated for him with an artificial voice.  Working, almost entirely within his head, and without the ability to scribble a single equation, turn a dial, or flip a page, Dr. Hawkings became one of the very most important and revered scientific thinkers of his age.  Among the things for which he is best known: our understanding of Black Holes and our modern understanding of the Big Bang (Inflation)  .

This is certainly not a eulogy. On the contrary, I just want to wish him a speedy and complete recovery. We’re in no mood to lose a guy like you, Dr. Hawkings. PLEASE. Get better. You are very much needed, appreciated, and admired.

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Image from MorgueFile


When the World Trade Center towers were hit on 9/11/2001, we learned some excruciating lessons about getting people out of a burning and structurally damaged high rise. We learned that the fire stairs that are, theoretically, available to evacuate people, can fail in many ways as they fill with smoke, become blocked by disabled individuals trying to make their way down or by people assisting them. The stairs can also collapse or be blocked by rubble. And the doors to the stairwells can disappear into the flames, fumes, and confusion. Even when the fire stairs do remain intact, they don’t work well when emergency crews with bulky equipment are trying to struggle UP the stairs against a flow of panicked building occupants who are fleeing DOWN.

The 9/11 disaster at the World Trade Center won’t be the last one in a high rise structure. Possibly (though I hope with all my heart I’m wrong) not even the last terrorist attack.

Let me describe our proposed solution, the
Highrize Lifeboat. As always, comments are appreciated or, at least, tolerated.


Our “Lifeboat” (see illustration at top) has a cabin that can carry approximately 10 people from an upper floor to the ground or can carry rescue personnel and equipment from the ground to an upper floor.  It is operated by a cable from the roof since the rails of an exterior elevator could twist or be blocked by debris. That’s why elevators aren’t used during a fire.

The Lifeboat is controlled by trained rescue personnel with a wireless remote control console. This allows them to board it and bring themselves and their equipment to the impacted area as well as remove victims FROM the area.


The “High Rise Lifeboat” moves vertically, rolling over the surfaces of the exterior wall on its roller/tires.   Obstacles such as cornices or protruding beams are “hurdled” by thrusters (actuators) in the roller/tire assembly. The thrusters push off like a mountain climber would while rappelling down a mountain face, kicking out with his/her legs to swing out and past obstacles during the descent.


Moving the cabin vertically along the face of a building that has suffered severe damage can be tricky. First of all, a suspended cabin without a rail system can be unsteady as people and things move around. So the cable mount has load sensors and a way to adjust its point of contact, thus keeping the cabin properly vertical.

Also, there may be thermal updrafts from the heat of a fire and debris can rain down. These are, obviously, horrendous circumstances. So how do you keep the cabin stable so that it doesn’t spin uncontrollably? A ducted fan forces the Lifeboat against a set of roller/tires (each side) which “ride” the wall of the building. This stabilizes it during its journey.


Sensors and cameras warn of obstacles that would impede vertical travel. Where necessary, the wheels can “steer” around an obstruction (within the limits of its cable suspension) . This, in combination with the “Rappel Kick” maneuver described above, gives the Hirize Lifeboat a good set of obstacle avoidance tricks.


Rescue “docking” is achieved when the roller/tires “retract” (the cabin slides itself along the horizontal strut on which the rollers are mounted, thus allowing the cabin to come into contact with the wall surface). The horizontal pressure of the fans holds the cabin in place for safe boarding operations.

The proposed system could also have a role  in building maintenance. Window washing and such.

Anyway, that’s the idea. Never did a thing with it. It’s in the public domain. Maybe someone’ll read this and think it has some merit. You never know.

6 Responses to “How People Will Be Saved In A Future "9/11"”



  2. David

    That’s such a smart comment that I decided to comment on my own blog. 1)Fire and smoke. Good point. But I can only assume from the people hangin’ out of windows in a fire that, however bad it is outside, it’s better than it is inside. Besides, you’re on your way down. Now. Just grab a respirator. As far as buildings with setbacks go, there IS a solution for a horizontal transfer point, but that’s too complicated for this presentation.

  3. Dick Pirozzolo

    the mother of all commercial building fires — that resulted in some reform measures — was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

    Like most disasters, the story of this fire, chronicles numerous mistakes that could have avoided the tremendous death toll.

    (Actually the reason why you don’t use an elevator during a fire is at the tip of your finger. You know those heat sensing buttons they use to call the elevator? since they are heat activated, they cause — so urban myth goes — the elevator to go directly to the fire floor. That’s why firefighters have an override key so they can use the elevators during a fire.

    An alternate to your system aimed at going from the fire floor to the ground, would be to travel one or two stories from the fire to a safe floor. That way you can move a lot more people out of the building a lot faster.

    And — having been caught in a fire, and covered a few as a reporter — the best advice is: DO NOT WAIR for confirmation when the alarm goes off – either vacate or follow the procedures we see all the time on the news.

  4. Ira Knigin

    System is already in place to evacuate in Israel. Was to be tested in NYC but there were some issues with whow was going to certify the test. Comtran Associates has a device called the SafetyStrobe that will help to evacuate the sites.

    Once the Fire Alarm goes off you have 2 minutes after that the FDNY will be on the way up.

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  6. MISTER ScienceAintSoBad

    And many thanks (by author) to the gracious reader.

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