“A SKYSCRAPER DISASTER THAT WILL STAGGER HUMANITY”
“The Titanic was unsinkable—yet she went down; our skyscrapers are unburnable—yet we shall have a skyscraper disaster which will stagger humanity.”
It was no alarmist who was talking to me, no uninformed and irresponsible prophet of ill-omen, no man not qualified to know whereof he spoke. On the contrary, the man speaking was that one of all others in New York who may rightfully be thought most able to make reasonable prophecy —the Chief Inspector of Buildings for Manhattan Bureau, Alfred Ludwig. The phrase impressed me. “Which will stagger humanity!” Those were the words which Oom Paul Kruger used when predicting the cost to England of the South African war. In that case they were fulfilled. It is difficult to imagine any catastrophe other than war, which could come nearer to “staggering humanity” again than would a real disaster to one of New York’s great buildings. “There are structures in this city,” Mr. Ludwig had already said, “which house so great a population that if a western township had it it would at once apply for incorporation as a city.” It is such populations which he says are now imperiled. A disaster which wiped out even half of those who spend their working hours in any one of the greater of our buildings would be tragically memorable. “New York,” Mr. Ludwig continued, “is confronted by such a problem as confronts no other city in the world. We have more high buildings and buildings that are higher than have ever anywhere been known before. The new Woolworth Building towers, approximately, 750 feet above the sidewalk. We have many buildings over thirty stories high, and dozens more than twenty stories high. How fully are the enormous populations which inhabit them by day protected? There can be one answer only: they are protected almost as well as they can be, but they cannot be protected.”
“You mean from fire?”
“I mean from fire and what is likely to go with fire—panic.”
“Have you not full supervision over elevators and the machinery which operates them?”
“We have complete and sufficient supervision over the machinery operating passenger elevators; but we cannot compel the inclosure of elevators in fireproof shafts in existing buildings of accepted ‘fireproof’ construction. In buildings to be built hereafter elevators must be so inclosed; hut they were not so inclosed in earlier buildings, and the law gives us no power to compel the change.”
“But in a fireproof building, why should they be inclosed ?”
“It is said that no gasoline engine has yet been manufactured which is foolproof; no crowd of women and men has ever yet been gathered which has been panic-proof, and no occupied building ever can be ‘fireproof,’ for, no matter how entirely non-inflammable its walls and floors and door and window frames may be, if it is occupied it will be full of contents which are highly burnable.
“We do not consider elevators at all in figuring on the possibilities of escape from fire, when examining the plans of proposed buildings; we consider only stairways. Elevators are liable to damage by fire, their conductors are susceptible to panic, their shafts are likely to become conduits for fire. But let us for a moment talk of elevators. There is not a high building in the world sufficiently equipped with them to take down at one trip of all its cars at a busy time of day more than a small proportion of the occupants of one of its floors, and vve are discussing buildings which have forty floors. Each of these floors would furnish its frightened crowd. The vast majority of people caught in a skyscraper by fire would need to use the stairs. 1 wonder if any sane man thinks it possible that a crowd of men and women, young and old, such as is housed in any of our great buildings could find accommodation for its flight upon the stairs provided!”
This startlingly recalled to me an experiment which Holbrook Fitz John Porter made for my benefit, a week or two ago, in the Engineers’ Building. We had been discussing this very matter of stair capacity in time oi panic and he proved to me by actual demonstration that in descending stairs each individual needs not only the space he occupies upon one stair, but the space he is to step into upon the next stair below, and if the space he has just left upon the stair above be filled at once, a clog is certain to result. It is impossible to imagine human beings placed more helplessly than upon a crowded stairway, as Mr. Porter very clearly proved to me that evening. The capacity of a stairway is much less than would appear. What Mr. Porter had shown me made what Mr. Ludwig said to me impressive.
“The dangers from open elevator shafts,” he went on. “are many, even in the most highly fireproofed buildings. They readily allow a fire starting on one floor to spread throughout the building. No building can be considered an entirely fireproof structure unless every avenue by means of which flames may spread is promptly closable. Even in buildings of non-inflammable construction. inflammable contents generally accompany commercial enterprises, while buildings used purely for office purposes are sure to contain enough fixtures and furniture to offer fuel to rapidly spreading flames. It doesn’t take much fuel in flames where they are not expected or provided for to frighten human beings who believe the flames are dangerous to their lives. Buildings built of fireproof materials, according to the best principles of fireproof construction, can be very dangerous places to loiter in after a fire has started among their contents. While buildings may be rendered fireproof, no means have as yet been devised by which their contents or their human occupants can be fireproofed. These are the things that make it imperative that our vigilance shall not stop at mere fireproofing construction. We might liken the average fireproof building in which a fire occurs to a huge stove, in which fuel has been placed and lighted. The unenclosed elevator shafts and stairway wells will form an ideal flue and the fuel in the stove will burn more rapidly and in a manner very likely more dangerous to that human life which is involved than the contents, with the structure added, of the old non-fireproof buildings, planned so as to furnish less ideal conditi ms for the lire. The metal of a stove is not consumed by the flames; the walls and framework or a fireproof budding will not be; but the stove’s fuel will burn, of course, and the fireproof building’s contents will be quite as readily destroyed as the same contents would be in a building not fireproof. Smoke rising from the burning contents of a commercial establishment located in a fireproof building will smother just as quickly as if it rose from the burning structure of a non-fireproof building; a panic on the iron stairway of a fireproof building will surely be as fatal as a panic on the wooden stairway of a non-fireproof building. It is sure, indeed, to be even more so, for the fireproof building is certain to be larger, probably by many times, and, therefore, occupied by many times as many people. The crowds upon the stairways, therefore, will certainly be greater. A panic is a panic. Once fear starts it will be as acute in a fireproof as in a non-fireproof building. I am convinced that the peril of our skyscrapers to life and limb has been underestimated and that, indeed, it scarcely could be overestimated.”
“But skyscrapers arc necessary in New York,” I suggested. “High real estate values make it necessary to accommodate many layers of humanity upon each square foot of our costly ground.”
“Congestion is one of the unfortunate faults of New York’s growth,” said Mr. Ludwig, ” and an unnecessary fault. There is no need for crowding us as we are crowded. The piling of us up, forty layers at a time, is no necessity. It has been done by real estate owners, who by doing it, have increased the value of their holdings tar beyond their rightful figure. This should never have been tolerated. New York is surrounded by vacant land. It has more room in which to grow than London has, for London has only all of England, which is small, while we have all of the United States, and that is very vast We’ll have the lesson of -kyscraper danger impressed upon our minds are long with an emphasis which will make ns shudder.”
“Should the height of buildings in New York then be limited by law, irrespective of methods of construction?” I asked.
“Emphatically yes. I have divided the skyscraper question into several sections; that is, I have looked at it from several points of view, and find them all unfavorable. Such buildings have one advantage only; they make money fast, producing a tremendous crop of rentals from a very small area of land. The most important of the objections to the skyscraper, the three points which will most appeal to the lay mind, are its threat against human life, its threat against municipal well-being because of the congestion which it brings about, and its threat against the health of the individual because of the bad light and air which the massing of so many thousands upon so small an area is certain to compel.”
-But the higher the building the better light and air it gets, I protested.
“As long as it stands alone and is not surrounded by other high buildings. Mr. Ludwig countered. “Skyscrapers well lighted? No. In the downtown business district, where they are most numerous, more people are every weekday working by artificial light than in any other spot of a like area upon the suriace of the earth. And to go back to the fire peril, every two people descending a stairway require five stairs in which to operate. How long would it take one of these great skyscrapers to put five people upon every two stairs, instead of two people upon every five stairs? About one minute, probably. When that occurs, scream—for your panic is on, and you can do little else. The dead will lie in piles at the bottom of those stairs. Even suppose departing occupants do not become panic-stricken. Can they go down those stairs and escape danger? How many women or girls—and of them at least half of our skyscraper population is made up— could stand a downward rush of forty flights of stairs? How many men could stand it? Human bones and muscles cannot stand such a downward climb.”
“But the construction of our high buildings is safe. They won’t fall down? We are not likely to have the disaster of a collapse upon our hands one day, are we?”
“In that regard their construction is absolutely safe. That is a matter of engineering, and engineering has developed it up to the final detail of perfection.”
“Is the fire department competent to fight a fire in one of them, should one break out?”
“The fire department at its best, even with the new high pressure water system, is practically limited to an upward reach of 100 feet with its own apparatus. In order to reach higher fires in these mountainous buildings it must rely on the facilities which they themselves supply—standpipes and what not. We have gone skyscraper mad in this town. The height of fireproof buildings should be limited by law, and the limit should be placed far, far below the height to which many of our larger buildings now reach.”
“What else is wrong with our buildings and our building code?”
“Principally weakness of the law. One of its inefficiencies will keep us. for a moment more, talking of the great American fire peril. In section 75 of the building code a specific number of stairways is required for certain buildings, such as factories, workshops, etc., and the same number of stairways is required for a two-story as for a twelve-story building. The height is not taken into consideration; area alone is calculated. That seems to be a serious imperfection in the code. Nor is the number of stairways even thus much regulated in all buildings. Save in the small group which I have partially enumerated, the number and capacity of stairways is left to the discretion of the superintendent of buildings. As a result of this we find office buildings all over town—12, 14 and even 16 stories high—having but one stairway each. In many of these cases the single stairway is uninclosed, and, therefore, at time of fire, the most perilous portion of the building.”
This brought the Ascii fire to my mind, and I asked Mr. Ludwig about the present law relating to factory and loft buildings.
“Under the existing law,” he answered, “factory buildings not of fireproof construction can be erected to a height of seventy-five feet, and can cover an area of 8,000 square feet, if on an interior lot, and, as a maximum when fronting on three streets, can cover an area approximating 22,000 square feet. Such buildings can, and many of them do, provide working accommodations for hundreds, even for thousands of employes. These are afforded comparatively little protection against fires. When we compare the laxity of our law protecting workers from fire with the severity of the law which protects amusement seekers from fire, the contrast is amaaing. It would seem, indeed, that if partiality must be shown, it should favor the worker rather than the amusement seeker. One thing, doubtless, which has deterred our lawmakers from rightly adjusting this matter has been the certainty that from the factory owners would go up a loud cry of protest over the expense if they were compelled by law to make their buildings safe. It is assumed that the owners of theaters are rich and can afford the cost of building proper buildings; that the factory owners, many of them, are finding it difficult, as it is, to make both ends meet, and that they should not be pressed too hard. It is a false point of view. We should not consider owners in either case, but rather the people whose lives are rendered safe or are imperiled. Our annual loss of life in factory fires is shameful and is quite preventable.”
“What are the figures?”
“We find it difficult to learn, and that, also, is a sad state of affairs. We have been trying to get accurate figures on deaths from fire and through elevator accidents, but have been confronted by a shocking lack of statistical information. The only figures at present obtainable are those on file in the coroners’ office and they are incomplete. The present law is extremely deficient in its provisions for fire walls in large buildings. In non-fireproof construction certain limitations are placed on the size of single buildings, but where the construction is fireproof no restriction whatever is made as to the area which may he covered under a single roof. As a result numerous buildings have been erected in this city covering as much as 80,000 square feet, or nearly two acres, yet not provided, or required to be provided, with a single fire stop. There are many cities in this country, notably Chicago, which I have just visited, where areas permitted without fire walls are strictly limited.”
“And the next most important matter to be taken up in New York City?” I inquired.
“Window protection,” Mr. Ludwig answered promptly. “Existing laws require that window openings shall be protected only in cases where abutting buildings approach within thirty feet This does not take account of the fact that the most dangerous exposure a building can be subjected to come from fire within itself. A large proportion of our fires are spread by the leaping of flames from window to window; there have been instances where the protection expected from interior fire walls was nullified by this disastrous process. In the law buildings of the olden days window’ protection was not of such vital importance; now’, in order to provide the maximum of safety in buildings of great height, all window openings should be regarded as potentially dangerous, whether they face streets, adjacent vacant property, or the most inflammable of neighboring buildings. They should be provided, in all instances, with fireproof blinds, or, in the absence of these blinds, they should be glazed with wire-glass. The only objection which can be made to this must be based upon the ground of expense. The claim which has sometimes been advanced that wireglass obstructs the light and view is too puerile for consideration. The additional cost would be as nothing if compared to the salvation of a single life, and more than one has been lost because these precautions had not been taken. If all stairways and elevator shafts were inclosed in fireproof wells and all windows were properly protected with fireproof shutters or wire-glass, each story of every fireproof building could be made practically a fire section of itself. One year’s saving in fire losses would go a long way toward paying the total expense of such improvements.”
“What difficulties at present occur in the administration of the law?” I asked.
“They are serious, but can be summed up in a few words. Under the statute as it stands the building department must treat any violation of the law as a civil offense. As a consequence, when a violation is committed, it is necessary to send the case to the corporation counsel, in order to enforce compliance with the statute. Approximately 10,000 violations are annually brought to the attention of this department, of which fully 40 per cent, are instances of working without proper permits—and that means building without the approval of the plans by this department, or working without proper inspection. There are many unscrupulous builders in New York who will try to sneak an inferior and illegal job through without our knowledge, and we cannot always catch them at it. When we do, we can make of it but a civil offense, and this makes the co-operation of the police impossible. We cannot place an offender under arrest; we can only summons him to court and sue him. We can call the police in only when and where human life is actually endangered. Another serious flaw in our existing system which not infrequently puts life and property in jeopardy is the looseness of the law governing the occupancy of buildings, excepting theaters and places oi assembly. The bureau of buildings has no jurisdiction over changing occupants, and, as a result, plans and applications can be filed stating that a building is to be used for a certain object. On the ground of this proposed occupancy the plans may be found acceptable and a permit given for the erection of the structure. If the landlord finds this occupancy unprofitable, or learns of some less desirable occupancy which would be more profitable, he can change the occupancy, almost at will, permitting in a second tenant on occupancy which for the first would have been illegal.”
“Why, then, is it not correct?”
“It is hard to say, for, as it stands, this law might at any moment be responsible for a shocking horror. But it is almost impossible to secure an alteration in the building code. The opposition to any change whatever is certain to be wonderfully organized and thoroughly alert. So, while new and safe buildings cannot, as things stand, be erected, old, unsafe buildings may with impunity be rendered more unsafe by alterations, providing only that the alterations shall not be material. Before any tenement can he occupied, a certificate of occupation must be issued by the tenement house commission. A similar regulation should be made applicable to buildings of all classes. No change should be allowed in any building, either of construction or occupancy, without the approval of the department and the issuance of a certificate. These things would help us stop the wholesale killing of our citizens by fire which has made New York notorious among the great modern cities of the world.”— New York Times.