Unsafe Refuge: Why did so many wheelchair users die on Sept. 11?

by Josie Byzek and Tim Gilmer

Illustration courtesy EVAC+CHAIR Corp.

By now we’ve heard the stories–at least two wheelchair-using employees carried to safety by brave helpers–but no one wants to talk about those wheelchair users who perished in stairwells while waiting to be rescued.

Exactly how many in wheelchairs perished in the Twin Towers? Did they have a chance of escaping alive? What evacuation plans had been put into place between the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the Sept. 11 disaster? Most importantly, what can we do to ensure safe evacuation in the future?

Unfortunately, a fatalistic assumption lingers: Too bad so many in wheelchairs were left behind, but nothing could have been done to save them. In high-rise disasters, the thinking goes, a wheelchair user’s only hope is to be carried to safety by firemen. That is why we’re instructed to wait in areas of “safe refuge”–usually stairwells–while nondisabled evacuees descend the stairs.

But this assumption and prevailing evacuation procedures are flawed, with potentially fatal consequences.

Firemen understandably dislike having to deal with extra equipment. Many feel that evacuation devices get in the way. But John Abruzzo was carried to safety from the 69th floor in an evacuation chair before firemen even reached him [see "A Day to Remember," November 2001]–and he was carried by coworkers with no training whatsoever. In a letter to David Egen, president of EVAC+CHAIR, Abruzzo writes, “There were three or four people handling the chair at all times. … None had any prior experience using the chair and how it actually worked.”

Abruzzo says it took 90 minutes for his helpers to descend 69 floors, not exactly record time, but in the process they passed firemen who had climbed no further than the 30th floor, “carrying hundreds of pounds of equipment, some kneeling off to the side trying to catch their breath, and they were nowhere near where they had to be.”

Abruzzo speaks sympathetically of the firemen, not critically. Still, he and Tina Hansen, both employees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, each escaped in evacuation chairs with inexperienced helpers because they broke the rules. Most who did what they were expected to do–wait to be rescued–died.

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Of course, no one could have foreseen the Twin Towers crumbling to dust, but the 1993 WTC terrorist bombing provided critical warning. The Port Authority, which managed the WTC in 1993, purchased 125 evacuation chairs from Egen’s company soon after. No one from the Port Authority has yet confirmed where all those chairs were stored or how they were distributed, but Tina Hansen told NM: “The fire safety director [of the Port Authority] investigated and gave them to [employees] who were identified with mobility restrictions. One with MS, one with a bad back, people with heart disease. Mine was underneath my desk and I had forgotten all about it. Two secretaries remembered and reminded me.”

Hansen’s forgetting about her device combined with Abruzzo’s recalling a single demonstration from shortly after the 1993 bombing indicates that the perceived need for preparedness had worn off soon after the first attack. Whatever evacuation plan existed had not been practiced regularly, and when disaster struck, the plan fell apart. Most of those who had been assigned to help with rescue devices panicked and fled downstairs.

Still, at least the Port Authority had thought to purchase evacuation chairs. But where were those 125 chairs on Sept. 11?

With WTC tenants still displaced and records in disarray, there is no way of knowing how many other companies took similar precautions. Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, with one wheelchair-using employee–Ed Beyea, who died with his friend, Abe Zelmanowitz, at his side–had purchased a single evacuation chair in November 2000. But personal attendant Irma Morant, who attended work every day with Beyea, insisted that they had never been given any evacuation options other than to wait in the “safe refuge” area. Indeed, she flatly says, “There was no evacuation chair.”

Deb Boren, public relations officer for Empire BCBS, claims that Empire had an evacuation chair, but she could not say where it was or if there had been an attempt to use it. When asked if she thought it would be helpful to have demonstrations on how the chair works so coworkers might be able to help in a disaster, she replied, “It’s my understanding that it’s up to the fire department to utilize the evacuation chair.”

This is the prevailing view regarding evacuation chairs, but Robert McLean, general sales manager for EVAC+CHAIR, insists that anyone can learn to use one. Attitudinal and awareness problems, however, often prevent this from happening. To begin with, too few evacuation chairs have been purchased. “There is no depth or penetration of the market,” says McLean. More importantly, getting people to take evacuation training seriously is difficult. “Some companies are good at it, others are not. It’s a people thing. Sometimes we’ll get calls a year or two after shipping, and someone will say, ‘Hey, we just found a box in the storeroom with a chair in it. What do we do with it?’”

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What will it take to increase awareness and overcome lax attitudes toward evacuation preparedness? A concerted effort by the disability community is needed.

“How little prepared as a nation we have been for this,” says Alan Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability. “On Sept. 21 we wrote 4,300 mayors and urged them to come to our Web site so we could point them toward the experts.” (See www.nod.org for preparedness links.) Reich also spoke to Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security (OHS), about including people with disabilities in emergency plans.

 

“Where were those 125 chairs on Sept. 11?”

On Oct. 4, Reich and Marcie Roth of the National Council on Independent Living sent a letter to President Bush urging creation of a task force within the OHS to insure inclusion of people with disabilities in evacuation planning. The letter was signed by more than a dozen major advocates, including Andrew Imparato of the American Association of People with Disabilities, Justin Dart, Jr., Mitch Stoller of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, and representatives of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, National Association of the Deaf, and the American Council of the Blind.

But federal involvement alone will not solve the problem. “Egress issues tend to be set by local laws and private firms,” states an Oct. 10 article in the Wall Street Journal. The article also quotes Imparato as saying: ‘”It is crystal clear to me that employers have a huge role to play,’” and concludes by mentioning Abruzzo’s rescue with an evacuation chair.

Besides EVAC+CHAIR (212/369-4094; www.evac-chair.com), which sells for about $950 and whose main market is colleges, commercial buildings and hotels, there are two other major evacuation devices. The Garaventa Evacu-Trac (800/663-6556; www.garaventalift.com) retails for about $2,200. According to sales manager Mike Morisset, it features a braking system and moving crawler tracks rather than a sled. Most of its sales are to government entities and schools. LifeSlider (620/442-4543; www.lifeslider.com) works like a modified toboggan. According to sales manager Aaron Rush, it is capable of carrying more than 300 pounds. Its main market is nursing homes and schools, and it retails for about $500.

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The focus on evacuation preparedness brings up another problem. Albert R. Hunt writes in the Oct. 18 issue of the WSJ: “There is a threat that hard-earned rights … launched with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act might be rolled back. After the World Trade Center catastrophe there already are suggestions that … people in wheelchairs should not work in skyscrapers.”

Still, there’s no reason wheelchair users cannot improve their chances of safe evacuation in high-rise disasters. How?

1. Support efforts to raise awareness [see "Freedom To Move"].

2. Advocate for the establishment of the Office of Homeland Security task force.

3. Educate employers: Let your employer know you will need assistance in an emergency; make sure your company’s evacuation plan works for you; urge your company to include a rescue device in the plan; develop “buddies” who will help you use the rescue device; make sure they’re trained and have no other emergency responsibilities; and in case the plan breaks down, know where the rescue device is stored and how to direct others to use it.

According to Joan Stein, director of ADA Inc., a Pittsburgh organization that helps companies develop ADA compliance plans, a private employer must include disabled employees in its evacuation plan. The law does not say you are legally entitled to an evacuation device, but after the WTC disaster, employers may be more willing than ever to consider providing one.

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