This is why, given any choice at all . . .

. . . you should never, ever live more than two or three floors up in an apartment tower (or, for that matter, work above that level in a skyscraper office building).

That’s Grenfell Tower in London, on fire.  There are many more pictures at the link.  Several fatalities have been confirmed, with more people as yet unaccounted for.

Ever since I was a sector officer in civil defense in Cape Town, South Africa, responsible for several high-rise office blocks in the city center, I’ve had a real phobia for such places.  When one is taught just how many things can go wrong, to cause a fire or other disaster, one realizes how little chance one has in places like that.  9/11 proved that for terrorists, such towers are an open invitation to mass casualty events, too.

I realize some people have no choice but to live and/or work in such buildings.  For them, I have the following advice.

  1. Live and/or work as low in the building as you can – preferably within three floors of the ground, if at all possible.  If you’re forced to live or work higher than that, have a plan to get lower in the building at the earliest possible opportunity in the event of a problem, even if this is against company policy or the orders of your superiors.  What’s more important – your job, or your life?  Speed can save you.  Delay can kill you.  Ask those who got out of the Twin Towers on 9/11.  Those who didn’t or couldn’t move fast, didn’t survive.  (If you’re partly disabled, as I am, this is an even more important consideration.  I can’t move fast or far on foot, even if I want to.  I’ve got to be ready to move as quickly as possible if I’m going to make it out of such a situation.)
  2. Be prepared to evacuate in the event of fire or other disaster.  This includes having a ‘bug-out bag’ permanently packed and ready, containing all your essential documentation, medication, a change of clothing, etc.  Have one for each family member at home, and have one for yourself at work as well.  The change of clothing is particularly important.  Have you ever watched office workers trying to walk down twenty-plus flights of stairs in high heels?  I have.  It’s not pretty – and they delay everyone behind them, too.  If they kick off their shoes to walk faster, their feet can (and will) be trodden on by others, causing possibly crippling injury – and if they’re not used to walking in bare feet, they’ll be hurting and slowing down within a few floors.  Having a pair of good walking or running shoes can be, literally, a life-saver.
  3. Know every potential exit route available to you, including ones that may be officially ‘off limits’.  In the event of disaster, who cares if some bureaucrat has decreed that this passage is for higher-ranking personnel only, or that stairwell is reserved for use by certain floors?  If your life is at stake, you don’t have time to argue or discuss the matter.  Make sure you know how to get to any and all of them.
  4. If you might potentially be trapped in your apartment or office, consider providing your own means of escape.  This is where being lower in the building can literally be a life-saver.  You can buy emergency rope ladders that are installed on your balcony or just inside an opening window, and can unroll to give you a way to reach the ground down the outside of the building.  If you can’t afford one, or don’t have space to store one, you can at least have a safety or rescue rope long enough to reach the ground from your location, with knots tied in it at regular intervals to help you get down it.  (Fitness and strength are essential to use it safely, of course.)  Have one or two portable fire extinguishers on hand (preferably at least 4-5 pounds weight, so as to have multi-use capacity, and rated for fire types A, B and C), not only to put out fires in your vicinity, but also to help you get past or through flames on your way out of the building.  Fire masks that allow you to breathe and protect your eyes will be extremely valuable (I’ve tested this one, with acceptable results).  Also, keep on hand a tool or tools that can smash windows, force open doors, etc.  Fire axes, pry bars, Halligan tools, etc. are used by fire departments for a reason.  There’s no reason you can’t own and use them, too – and some training may be useful.  In particular, don’t forget those most basic, yet most essential, of tools – a good pocket flashlight and folding knife!  You can often take them places where you can’t take something bigger or stronger.  Make sure both are stout units that will stand up to being dropped or abused.  When you’re trying to save your life, you may not be able to handle or use them gently.
  5. Have multiple ways to attract the attention of emergency services.  A flashlight or lantern with a strobe setting, an emergency whistle, an air horn – there are many devices that will help to announce your presence and indicate that you need help.  They might save your life.
  6. Realize that if you’re caught in a crowd, you’re effectively no more than a lemming among lemmings.  A crowd is not intelligent.  It’s an amorphous mob of individuals ‘following the herd’.  It can be stampeded, driven, manipulated . . . all bad things.  Get out, fast, and get clear of the crowd.  You’ll be a lot safer that way.
  7. As you get clear of the crowd, remember that predators always gather to prey on the herd.  If you move away, you give up your anonymity among the mass of people.  I guarantee you, at that fire last night, muggers, pickpockets and other criminals were drawn to the mass of people evacuating the building, or just gawking at the flames.  As you get clear, remain alert to your surroundings, and be prepared to fend off unknown would-be ‘helpers’ or other potential threats.
  8. Pre-arrange contact methods and routines for your family.  If anyone is caught up in an emergency, they should know whom to call to leave messages that they’re OK (or not), that they’ve got away from the scene of the problem, and where they can be found (or need to be picked up).  It’s a lot easier, particularly for kids, if they have a cellphone pre-programmed with emergency numbers, so all they have to do is punch one button, or select one particular entry in their address book.  (Of course, in a major emergency, the cellphone networks will almost certainly be overloaded, so calls may not get through.  Text messaging may be more reliable;  or you might want to invest in some Family Radio Service (FRS) two-way radios, to maintain contact with those who are close enough to you to use them.  They’re very handy if you’re in a group, and get separated – you can ask each other where you are, and navigate to a recognizable landmark where you can be reunited.  You can also use them if you’re in different vehicles, to keep in touch and arrange to meet up at a convenient stopping place.)

Those are just a few suggestions.  My primary one, however, is still not to live and/or work in such buildings.  It’s a lot safer if you’re not there in the first place!



  1. In the Pentagon on that fateful Tuesday morning, I was glad to see our entire office cohort rallied and evacuated safely and quickly. Younger, more agile folks helped calm and direct people who were less calm and disciplined than others. This, unsurprisingly, broke down along mostly military/civilian lines.
    What appalled me was what happened after we cleared the building into South Parking. Scrambling through a sea of impounded vehicles were hordes of naked, pink or dark-skinned people unprotected from any of the many post-arrack tactics the world has come to know very well. A convenient "soft target" that could have been easily exploited by any number of secondary attacks such as armed gunmen on motorbikes, IEDs, etc. I'm thankful that AQ's effective planning for that day didn't go beyond taking down the airplanes. 23,000-plus people eventually made it out relatively unscathed that day.
    Thanks to its wartime construction design/construction methods, the Pentagon offered multiple egress/evacuation routes via ramps, stairs and tunnels that most buildings do not have.


  2. I wont stay in a motel/hotel that does not have a fire sprinkler system….
    I suggest you follow the same game plan.

  3. I also just saw this. My own notes:
    1. If you live in such a place, you are putting your life into the hands of the stupidest person in the building. Kids playing with matches, senile old people leaving the stove on, immigrants cooking over an $8 charcoal pit inside. It's all the same. Your preparations don't matter.
    2. The news is reporting that the fire was started by a refrigerator, something they could not possibly have known. The truth is far more likely to be, "dumb ass immigrant cooking indoors over an open flame".
    3. Reports also claim that the fire was only the size of a Christmas tree when people started evacuating. Then why the heck didn't the people who saw that, PUT IT OUT??? If you are in close proximity to a small fire, in a building full of unaware people, you have a moral obligation to suppress that fire even at hazard of your own life. The residents of that building felt otherwise. If the people in contact flee first, then the people on the upper floors never even get a warning before they are trapped.
    4. The comments in the original story are getting really heated. The anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant factions are really out in the open. One wonders how much longer this goes on before there is a real violent backlash, instead of the make-believe backlash the media is always warning us about.

  4. I once worked on the top floor of a new suburban office building 9 stories high. Not all that high, but the local police and fire departments freaked because the building was too tall for their equipment and no one had told them about the height of the new building in advance. They set up evacuation procedures, rendezvous points, leaders to count people, etc. On a fairly frequent basis fire & police would conduct fire drills and building evacuation practice that would be timed and critiqued. If we were slow to get out or didn't go to the right evac point the co. president got a lecture. That was to be avoided at all costs. I'm glad they did those things.

  5. "If you're forced to live or work higher than that, have a plan to get lower in the building at the earliest possible opportunity in the event of a problem, even if this is against company policy or the orders of your superiors."

    See also: Rick Rescorla


    He wound up in New York City, working for Dean Witter Reynolds, a brokerage firm headquartered in the World Trade Center. In 1990, he and a friend warned the New York Port Authority that the center was vulnerable to a car bomb in its parking garage. The Port Authority took no action. Three years later, a terrorist did just what Rescorla had predicted. After that bombing, Rescorla predicted another attack on the World Trade Center, even suggesting that terrorists might use a plane full of explosives. He pressured his company to move out; he urged the Port Authority to reform its security and evacuation plans. He got nowhere.

    Then he made the decision. If no one would help him save his co-workers, he would teach his co-workers to save themselves.

    He began regular evacuation drills, standing in the stairwells, stop watch in hand. He taught his colleagues always to go down, not up (helicopter rescues from rooftops are rare). He told his co-workers never to wait for police or fire fighters, to always take charge of their own survival.

    He persisted for eight years, despite a divorce, a long battle with cancer, and a second marriage. In 1997, Dean Witter merged with Morgan Stanley, putting Rescorla in charge of security for floors 44 through 73 of Tower 2. He kept up the drills, insisting that everyone participate, even visitors.

    Time Magazine’s Amanda Ripley described Rescorla’s planning and persistence in her book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–and Why":

    The radicalism of Rescorla’s drills cannot be overstated. [This was] an investment bank. Millionaire, high-performance bankers on the seventy-third floor chafed at Rescorla’s evacuation regimen. They did not appreciate interrupting high-net-worth clients in the middle of a meeting. Each drill, which pulled the firm’s brokers off their phones and away from their computers, cost the company money. But Rescorla did it anyway….His military training had taught him a simple rule of human nature, the core lesson of this book: the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to repeatedly run through rehearsals beforehand.

    On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Rick Rescorla heard an explosion next door in Tower 1. As he grabbed his bullhorn and his hard hat, someone from the Port Authority came over the building’s loudspeakers, telling everyone to stay at their desks.

    But Rescorla was adamant. He went from floor to floor, telling Morgan Stanley employees to evacuate, to stay away from the elevators, to follow the procedures they had
    practiced for so many years.


    More at the link. I would note that I originally heard the story directly from Prof. Gibson, the author of the article, when I was in his Sales & Leases class a few years ago (incidentally, I ended up with the top grade in that class).

  6. When the planes hit the WTC many people performed a "gathering" response: straightening their desks, putting work materials away, etc. before evacuating.

    Wrong response. Even if it may be a false alarm, get the hell out. Right now. If it is a false alarm you can come back later and straighten up your desk. If you even think something isn't right get out. Now.

    Keys. Lots of people – especially women who are lifetime-trained to use purses – leave their keys in their purse or on their desk. If the SHTF when you're away from your desk you're screwed. Get copies of the critical keys – exit doors if necessary, your car, house, etc. and put them on a neck chain.

    Carry a light. There are plenty of inexpensive small pocket size LED flashlights. Carry one. All the time, everywhere. Replace the batteries monthly, they're cheap. Dark kills.

    Feet. Protect yours. Always wear shoes that you can run in. If you have to wear heels, carry a small roll of fabric-finish duct or gaffer tape (regular duct tape has a slick surface, avoid it). If you have to get out fast, take off your heels, strip off some tape and put a couple layers on the bottoms of your feet and a couple wraps over your foot to keep the "tape soles" in place.

    Most urban and suburban fire departments have ladder trucks that cannot reach above the 5th floor.
    1) The higher you are up in a building means the sooner you have to leave because it will take longer to get out.
    2) If you are physically able it's a good idea to have standard 7/16" mountain climbing rope, a climbing seat with a figure 8 rope attachment and a rope brake. Practice with it enough to know how to use it.
    3) If you're not physically able, become physically able.
    4) Have a tool to get a window open so you can get out. That tool may have to be a small axe.
    5) The employee in a wheelchair, on crutches, a foot cast, or other "mobility limitations" is going to have to go last. They will produce a bottleneck on stairs and emergency exits that may kill everyone behind them. If you have such employees develop a plan to deal with their requirements; that may mean moving them to a ground floor workspace.

  7. I heard or read 4 floors is the maximum height to stay, because that is the highest fire department ladder trucks will reach. But I may be mistaken.

    Story of fire mentioned the building had just been refurbished in 2016. Supposedly, the outside metal wall panels were supposed to be fire retardent impregnated, but the interviewee mentioned that the photos seemed to indicate some other material may have been installed – too much fire in time frame to do that.

    I thought Radical Muslim hate terrorist act – I hope I'm wrong. Prayers to those affected by this.

  8. Years ago I recall reading an article which stated that (years are approximate) by 1890 fire ladders were able to reach upwards 97 feet. Within 70 years they'd pushed that figure up to 100 feet. A quick search suggests the miracle of modern technology has added another 37 feet to what is touted as "North America's Tallest Aeriel Ladder." Even a modestly sized city has buildings taller than that and only one can have the "tallest" ladder.

  9. My friends think I'm weird, because when I stay in a multiple-floor hotel/motel, I walk down the hallway outside my room in both directions. When they ask what I'm doing, I tell them I'm counting doorways to the stairway door. That way, if the entire hall is filled with smoke, I can walk down the hall with a blanket over my head, and count the doors on a particular side of the hall with my hand, thus knowing which one will be the door to the stairs.

    They always laugh, saying things like, "this place will never have a fire." I hope I never have to get the last laugh over them, if a hotel I'm in does catch fire.


  10. Two factors increased the death rate in the Twin Towers, by dramatically slowing the pace of the evacuations down the stairs:

    Disabled people, some in wheelchairs, being carried down the stairs.

    The fire fighters and police forcing their way UP the stairs as the occupants were trying to exit.

    Both activities should be the last thing scheduled.

  11. After all the Islamic high-jinks in the UK of late, I can't help but wonder IF it was arson,including chain and padlocked exits, if the Authorities will ever admit it? Thoughts, Peter?

  12. I believe those in the know say you want to between the second and fourth floors. First floor is vulnerable to entry and ground blasts. Above the 4th or so most fire fighting equipment can't reach you.

  13. NPR mentioned this morning that the building had natural gas pipelines running vertically up the stair wells. I'm not sure I'd limit myself to the 3rd floor (maybe 4 or 5 depending on local FD) but… I see a gas line in a stair well I might need to evacuate through, I'm going to point myself downstairs and off site post haste. Boyd K

  14. More news:

    At least 12 people have died, 74 are in six London hospitals including 20 in a critical condition after Grenfell Tower blaze started at 1am;
    Dozens more are feared dead or missing with one source claiming total could run into the hundreds. The Casualty Bureau number is 0800 0961 233;
    Trapped residents begged to be rescued while waving white towels, torches and mobile phones after being urged to stay in their flats;
    Petrified people were seen throwing themselves and their children out of windows – a baby tossed from the '9th or tenth floor' was caught and survived – but the mother's fate is unknown
    200 firefighters with 40 engines needed to tackle 'unprecedented' blaze and pulled 65 from inside the blaze – residents claim that fire alarms didn't work, sprinklers failed and only stairwell used as exit was blocked;
    Residents gave repeated warnings about 'appalling' fire safety to landlord Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), whose four bosses earned £650,000 between them last year;
    New plastic rain-proof cladding encasing the building in £10million refurbishment 'went up like a match' and helped fire spread quickly from fourth floor to 27th floor – although the contractor insists it was safe;
    Dozens of similar blocks from the 1960s and 1970s refurbished in recent years have the same or similar new cladding – Experts have said a blaze like this in a tower block was 'a disaster waiting to happen'

    Emphasis mine.

    Scroll down to the floor plans. 4 two-bedroom apartments and two single bed apartments per floor with only ONE central staircase for evacuation. It is highly probable, considering the pictures of the survivors, that the actual number of those present in the various apartments far exceeded the theoretical number.
    There are reports from survivors of the staircase being blocked by boxes and luggage.
    So, basically a death-trap which worked.

  16. Thanks for the links, Peter. Gotta mention, though, that the "KIKAR Emergency Escape Hood Oxygen Mask Respirator 60 Minutes Fire Smoke Toxic Filter" makes me wonder a bit, because there's too many words there. What does it do, exactly? Seems to be just a cannister filter integrated with a mylar hood. Where's the oxygen part?

    Due to my facial hair, I'd need one with a mouthpiece and nose plugs! 😀

  17. I have an old friend who worked in one of the tallest buildings in Chicago when 9/11 happened. It made an impression. He took skydiving lessons and did a enough base jumps that he was somewhat comfortable jumping from a fixed object(got arrested doing so too btw). He quietly brought to work his chute and the means to remove his office window in an emergency. Did the same thing when he moved to the (redacted) building in Chicago. He keeps a bug out bag and one of those smoke escape hoods but if he's convinced he can't safely exit the building via normal route he swears he's removing the window and taking his chances with his chute.

    So if a big building in Chicago ever catches fire, watch for the guy bashing out his office window and hitting the silk. That'll be my hooligan running buddy from back in the day.

  18. Isn't 24 stories a bit extreme for a residential building?
    From what little bit I've come across on this story, it seems like those units were somewhat of an "all-in-one": in that they had washers and dryers and other "surplus" amenities alongside the usual stove and refrigerator fare.

    I'm imagining the type of set-up that would enable such. From all the plumbing to the wiring and gas lines throughout the building.
    And 24 stories worth, with six apartment units on each floor.
    Quite a bit to accommodate on the whole.

    How often was this building inspected?
    And HOW were such inspections even conducted?

  19. re: Tal Hartsfeld

    This is what they call it in England as Council Housing. In the States, it would've been call the Projects. It's basically a '70s era build Soviet Bloc style public housing. They got some money to pretty it up with the flammable cladding that does 2 things: make it less of an eyesore and cut down on heating cost, which makes it 'green'. The starting fire with refrigerator isn't that far fetch when you consider that they outlaw the non-flammable refrigerant to save the ozone layer 2 decades ago, and we're left with the flammable ones. They've got ample warning about all of this and did nothing, because this is public housing for the poors.

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