- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

The dangerous and largely illegal practice of parachuting from high structures is now being marketed as a life-saving technique for those trapped inside burning high-rise buildings, with objection from some safety officials.
Manufacturers of base-jumping and sky-diving equipment have begun selling special parachutes designed specifically as a last-ditch- escape effort. Interest in the products has been intense since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
"Our phone has been ringing off the hook," said John Rivers, CEO of Destiny Aircraft, which makes the specially designed ExecutiveChute.
Mr. Rivers, who has spent the past several days pitching his product in the news media, said the company has sold several hundred parachutes to people from all walks of life, including office workers, landlords and fire departments.
"When I saw the video of those people jumping from the World Trade Center I said 'jeez, if only they had parachutes,'" said Nancy LaRiviere, owner of JumpShack, a DeLand, Fla., parachuting shop. "For a person who regularly jumps out of airplanes like I do, this was an obvious solution."
JumpShack now sells an "Egress Parachute System" for escape from buildings.
Precision Aerodynamics, a Dunlap, Tenn., parachute manufacturer has teamed up with Vertigo Base, a Moab, Utah, outfitting firm to create a similar device dubbed the EscapeChute and they say hundreds of calls have come in since Sept. 11.
Some firms say they had tried to develop such systems in the past, but interest was minimal.
"We've thought it was a good idea for a long time, but nobody took it seriously," said Jimmy Pouchert, co-owner of Vertigo Base.
These special parachutes range in price from $795 to $1,550 and differ from those used by those who parachute off of fixed structures, a practice known as base jumping. The escape parachutes use what is known as a "static line" that is attached to the structure and pulls the parachute open as the person falls. No rip cords or human involvement is necessary, and some manufacturers even say training is optional.
Base jumpers often use square or rectangular parachutes, which are controllable but more vulnerable to shifts in wind. For the most part, the new escape parachutes are round, and manufacturers say they fall more straight and can graze buildings without collapsing. Manufacturers say the parachutes have been tested and will work properly if deployed at the 12th story or above in most buildings.
Fire officials say parachuting from a skyscraper is a bad idea.
"It's not really recommended that you take a parachute and drop out of a building. Especially not a burning building," said Dennis Gault, a chief with the Fire Department of Chicago, home of the nation's tallest office building. "We don't endorse that. Not as a fire department."
Those selling these new parachutes stop short of arguing that jumping from buildings is safe. They simply point out that it's better than being trapped in a burning skyscraper.
"It's enough to save your life," Miss LaRiviere said. "If you break your ankle when you land, so what?"
But Chief Gault said he feared that people might use the parachutes prematurely.
"You stay there, and we'll come and get you," he said.
Base jumping is largely illegal in the United States because it is so dangerous. And those who participate say jumping from a building in an urban setting is a lot more risky than what they would normally try, unless it was a life-threatening situation.
"We jump in perfect conditions, or we don't jump," said Mr. Pouchert, who jumps in Moab, one of the few places were base jumping is legal. "This is a last-ditch effort, not to be used simply because the fire alarm went off. It's not a guarantee or anything. There's flames, there's cars, there's lightposts, there's high wires. It's a lot like a life preserver."
A team of base jumpers broke a world record on Aug. 29 after jumping from the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, the two tallest buildings in the world at 1,483 feet. One jumper broke his leg when he collided with a nearby shopping center. But 50 jumpers managed to land unscathed, and publicity from that event has sparked talk in base-jumping circles that the activity might gain support as a legitimate hobby. Mr. Pouchert said sales of escape parachutes might continue that trend.
"If owned a parachute, I might be very interested in watching people parachute," he theorized. "It might create that bond between normal people who don't base jump and those who do."


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