Tom Burney’s High-Speed Skyscraper Fire Escape Could have Saved Hundreds of Lives on September 11, 2001 — by NormanB (“Deviations from the Norm”)
My friend Tom Burney was a Pathay News newsreel cameraman. That was his boss yelling “Oh! The Humanity!” as Tom and the rest of the crew documented the fiery crash of the zeppelin Hindenburg, when the Hydrogen gas that made it lighter than air ignited and burned in 1937. Thirty-six airship passengers and one person in the ground crew died from that crash. Some passengers survived.
Tom Burney wanted to save people – people whom he knew that he’d never meet. Forty years after the crash of that graf zeppelin, Tom and I worked on a High-Speed Skyscraper Fire Escape. He was an inventor, and I was his apprentice for ten years. He never paid me, but I was at my job getting paid when we first worked together. When my paid work was done for the day, I could get down to what was really important.
Tom Burney was a triplegic. He had Multiple Sclerosis. He could barely talk, but I could understand him fine. He was in tiny Cambridge Nursing Home on sleepy PeggyMac Lane just outside of New Port Richey, Florida, surrounded by an alligator swamp.
Multiple Sclerosis caused his muscles to tighten up more and more, and more painfully. Tom was a big man, over 200 pounds. His leg muscles tensed and tightened from the disease, and shriveled. His right arm and hand tensed and tightened from the disease, and shriveled. With great effort and pained groans, he could barely move his feet. With a hydraulic lift, I could place him in a wheelchair, and he could come out of his room and socialize.
I was making $1.60 an hour as an Orderly at the nursing home, charged with the care of all eight male patients. I had to do a lot more for Tom than for the others, since they could walk. We quickly became friends. Halfway through each shift, the other patients were asleep, but Tom had a television and a pipe, and he was often still awake after my work with the others was done.
All of his inventions were for saving lives in emergencies. The Fire Escape was definitely the best, and the only one I’ll tell you about.
I worked for Tom Burney as an inventor’s apprentice for 10 years, usually for no pay, from 1972 to 1982, not constantly, while doing other things and having a life. I continued working with him even after we both left the nursing home, for seven years after I left.
I’m not mechanically inclined at all, and Tom just had his good left hand. But somehow together we built a wooden one-storey working prototype of the device. The “device” or devices would be attached to the outsides of buildings, next to vertical rows of windows. If there’s a fire in the building, or if a plane flies into it, the person wanting to escape steps up to the window, puts on her of his harness (which is hanging there next to the window), and attached at the top of the harness is a strap attached to an axle extending out of a steel wheel half-an-inch thick and three inches in diameter.
Next to the window on the outer wall of the building is our invention: An enclosed box eight inches wide and two inches thick runs down the side of the building next to the vertical row of windows. The escapee deposits the steel wheel into the device, and its extended axle sticks out of a gap on the outer wall of the device, which runs down the length of the device, all the way down the building, to three feet before the ground.
The escapee jumps out of the window. The strap is attached from the extended axle to the harness between the jumper’s shoulders. When the jumper has fallen one foot, the wheel lands on a block, where it stops (for a fraction of a second) and rolls off, to where it falls another foot, again landing on a block and rolling off. It takes a quarter of a second to fall one foot. With this invention, it takes about six seconds to descend ten feet, or one full storey.
It would take 13.6 minutes to safely reach the ground from the tops of those towers with the Burney Fire Escape. One of the buildings stood for about an hour after the attack, the other stood for almost two hours. As I said in the headline, Tom Burney’s device could have saved hundreds of lives.
Why didn’t it? Well, I’ve got some thoughts on that. But this Fire Escape can still save lives in the future: Skyscrapers still exist. Now, they need Fire Escape protection more than ever.
Months before the prototype was ready for demonstration, I was brutally Tortured and arrested on trumped up charges. http://my.firedoglake.com/normanb/2012/06/10/florida-what-it-was-like-being-tortured-in-the-united-states-31-years-ago-today/ That shouldn’t have had anything to do with the invention’s reception, but it did.
I was on a drug probation, awaiting trial for beating up the cops (which I didn’t do), by the time we finished the prototype of the invention. I arranged to demonstrate it at Florida State Fire College in Ocala, 100 miles to the North. I sought and got permission from the Probation and Parole Department to visit Florida Fire College. Then the FBI called about my Torture complaint.
If I wanted the FBI to investigate my Torture and the other crimes committed by the police in my case, I would have to meet the agent at the exact same time I had to be driving to Ocala. I met him at a gas station on Highway 75 and gave him my statements. Then I drove on, to the Fire College.
When I got there, the Chief Fire Inspector looked very suspiciously at me. (A long-haired bearded Fire Escape inventor whom police had cautioned him about?) The Chief Inspector said that he would not recommend Tom Burney’s device, because he believed that the would-be escapee would fall faster and faster while hurtling toward the ground. I told him that was scientifically impossible, because of the block that stops the fall each foot, after a quarter of a second’s fall. He did not know much about science. He said he still thought that it would speed up. He had his way. And, to date, NO tall buildings have Tom Burney’s High-Speed Skyscraper Fire Escape.