A Eureka Moment in the Middle of a Nightmare

By Stone, Kevin | Newsweek, September 13, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Eureka Moment in the Middle of a Nightmare


Stone, Kevin, Newsweek


Byline: Kevin Stone

People started jumping almost immediately. On the West Coast, where it was still dark when the first plane hit the North Tower, I woke up 15 minutes after impact. The live coverage had already shifted from shots of people waving shirts from windows to people stepping into air, a desperate effort to escape the inferno. They weren't choosing to jump, I realized, but choosing how to die: not from smoke and fire but by taking a 1,000-foot fall. It was, of course, no choice at all. They had no other way down.

In those moments, my shock at watching the Twin Towers burn was replaced by anger at watching people fall. They tumbled in pairs and alone, leaping from every side of the buildings as police helicopters circled helplessly. More than 200 people died this way, according to a USA Today estimate. At least 1,000 more perished in the buildings, trapped by the blaze and unable to make it down the stairs.

Oddly, I remember thinking about fishing. If it's possible to reel in a 400-pound fish, I wondered, why can't someone "reel out" a 400-pound person? As an orthopedic surgeon and serial inventor--I hold more than 50 medical patents related to knee and joint surgery--I started making notes right away. It took more than a year for me to act on them. I assumed the tragedy would be a turning point for building safety, much like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 had spurred laws requiring fire escapes and other exits. Instead, the jumpers seemed to vanish from consideration.

So in 2003 I contacted the engineering firm Think2Build and laid out the challenge: to build a high-rise personal-rescue device that anyone could use--without training and no matter how panicked. Parachutes, slides, and external elevators all seemed impractical or overly complicated. But the fishing idea held promise. We developed a dual-spool device with a harness that could lower people on a line. We loaded it with rocks or weighted mannequins, testing from the roof of my four-story clinic in San Francisco.

Finally, in early 2009, after six years and $1 million, we debuted the Rescue Reel for firefighters in Vallejo, Calif.

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