3 Nov

The sketch on the left illustrates a revolutionary plan to equip all highrise towers with exterior escape walkways. Using walkway, rather than stairwells will make this escape route wheelchair accessible. These walkways will facilitate the evacuation of compromised buildings in a number of ways.

Unhampered by smoke and toxic fumes that add stress and physical difficulty to descent, persons descending by the walkways will be able to see where they are going. The chances of remaining conscious during the descent will be greatly increased by the availabliity of fresh air. In turn the chances for survival would increase.
Rescue workers will be able to locate and to identify evacuees before entering the premises. Helicopters towing special containers which lock onto the walkways at corners will be able to carry people away from danger in a very safe manner. Escapees will aid the rescue team in attaching the cage-like containers to the exit ports on the building walkways.

Rescue and firefighting teams will also be able to enter the building at the problem locations.
My Father was in the Canadian Army and we lived for two years in a northern outpost. Besides playing in the abundance of snow and endless tundra, I had a lot of time to think, a lot of time to contemplate survival against the elements, and I saw a lot of movies. My response to the December 2001 issue of the magazine Metropolis Observed tied in with all of these factors.

At an early age, I saw a movie trailer about a boy trapped on a fire escape stairway that led nowhere. This metal support was attached up on the second or third level of a brick facade. Terrified, the boy was crying, as smoke poured out of a window behind him. Flames licked at him from all directions. The camera pulled back to show a crowd of adults down below. They were all extending their arms up and shouting for him to jump. I never saw the movie and I never asked anyone what it meant. It was for me, the image of a child placed in a situation, of no escape, and the adults were powerless to save him.

I thought of it often for a few years and I saw it as a movie set, where the boy was put in peril for no good reason. In my childhood reality, I drew the only conclusion that I could. As I never found out that he was saved, I had to assume the nightmare scenario played out as depicted. The boy died suffering in the worst of terror, and everyone was there to see it happen.

One of my first conclusions after September 11 was that it has again been proven that bigger is not necessarily better. There have been calls to design a suitable memorial to the persons lost there. Before placing memorials, we should scour our brains to come with ideas to prevent or to minimalize human suffering and loss if disaster should strike.
To this end, I offer the idea of constructing a better version of the exterior fire escape, permanent steel walkways attached to outside of skyscrapers. I first stuck my neck out by mentioning the walkway idea to an architect friend who immediately told me that it was not practical, then he agreed that it would eliminate the elements of blinding smoke and noxious gases that overtake both rescue workers and people trying to escape compromised structures.

There are many details that would need to be worked out if the idea should taken on by planners but, apart from the economics, I feel that the basic technological elements already exist to make the idea feasible. Gradually sloping walkways would be better than stairways and treated surfaces would slow the descent of those walking or escaping in wheelchairs. The corner pieces connecting the various levels would be equipped with baskets (cages) to be picked up by rescue helicopters. People could walk safely down to ground level or (not as good), up to the rooftop. As the walkways would be built of gridded steel, snow and ice would not accumulate on them to the extent of causing any great inconvenience or additional weight. They could also be coated to prevent icy build up.

Even while plans are implemented to reduce the possibility of terrorist intervention, planners have a responsibility to look at the ‘less likely’ but conceivable problems that living in a physical world add to the mix.

The walkways are a daydream that I wish had existed on September 11, 2001.

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About Valerie LeBlanc

Originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, pluri-­disciplinary artist and writer Valerie LeBlanc has worked in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australia. Her creations travel between poetry, performance, visual and written theory. Valerie LeBlanc has been creating video poetry since the mid 1980’s, and is the creator of the MediaPackBoard (MPB), portable screening / performance device. In the fall of 2012, she published her play The Raft, through Basic Bruegel Editions.

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