Parachutes Are the New High-Rise Must-Have

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The New York Sun

On Friday, Dr. Lloyd Lateiner, a Westchester ophthalmologist, called some relatives living on the 31st floor of an East Side high-rise building in New York City and urged them to immediately buy a parachute for each member of the family. No, not for skydiving, but to keep them around the house in the event they had to get out of their apartment in hurry because of a fire or terrorist attack.

“I know if I lived in a high-rise and couldn’t reach the ground using a ladder, I’d have a parachute ready,” he told them. “Using a parachute may seem scary,” he said, “but it’s a good alternative to dying.”

Prompting his call was Wednesday’s accident that took the life of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle when his plane crashed into an Upper East Side building and narrowly avoided killing some of its tenants; likewise, his ongoing concerns of another terrorist attack.

A principal of Aeriel Egress, a West Coast maker of building-escape parachutes, Todd Shoebotham, contends it’s only a matter of time before such chutes are mandated in high-rise buildings in New York City and throughout America. “Don’t ask me when, but it’s coming,” he says.

As a result of the publicity surrounding the crash that killed Mr. Lidle and his co-pilot and the damage it did to the building, sales of fire-resistant safety suits at Uncle Sam’s Army Navy Outfitters in Greenwich Village have been climbing, says Richard Geist, store manager and an owner of the seven-store chain. The one-piece Nomex light cotton suits, which the retailer acquired from the Air Force, include accompanying gas masks.

Suggested with the suit is a parachute harness that is wrapped around the body, then clipped, which enables a person to descend to the ground in a sitting position. A repelling climbing rope, which is attached to a sturdy furniture item in an apartment, such as a desk or a filing cabinet, is then attached to the harness, as well, allowing a person to climb down the building himself or be lowered by someone on the ground.

Prices for these items run as follow: The safety suit: $1,400 new or $89 to $299 used; harness, $48, and rope, $39.

“Every time there’s some terrorist attack, such as a subway bombing in London, our survival products see an immediate boost in sales,” Mr. Geist says. Included here are gas masks, which range from $49 (to fight tear gas) to $600 (for chemicals). There are also gas masks for Fido at $89.

Included among the customer base at Uncle Sam’s, which does an annual volume of nearly $9 million and is hoping to go public at some point, are such celebrities as Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Cynthia Nixon of Sex in the City fame and hip-hop stars the Black Eyed Peas. Customers also include troops in Iraq who order online.

During the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, Mr. Shoebotham, watching the unfolding events on television, thought to himself, “Heck, there are things in my office that can save lives.” At the time, he was a vice president and principal of Apex Base, a Perris, Calif.-based manufacturer of sports parachutes for base jumping (that’s parachuting from a fixed object, such as a building or a bridge). And so was born shortly thereafter Aeriel Egress, an affiliated maker of building-escape or emergency parachutes (not for airline use).

Its business has hardly boomed in America. The firm did sell some emergency parachutes when it first started to several Park Avenue lawyers (at $899 per parachute), but has found far more interest in the Far East, namely from Japan and Hong Kong. In time, though, Mr. Shoebotham believes Americans will come to accept them. He recalls that it took the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 to get ships to accept lifeboats and now they’re mandatory. He thinks it would take another major disaster here to win such acceptance in America.

The key, he says, is that if the World Trade Center had emergency parachutes on hand, there could have been a lot of survivors. “If you live in a high rise,” he asks, “what’s the excuse for not owning one?” The only problem, he says, is where the parachute will land and there’s no control over that.

There are relatively few American makers of emergency parachutes, which generally range from $2,500 to $3,000, depending on their size and weight. One of the few firms that does make them is Parachute Laboratories in Deland, Fla. Founder John Sherman says the parachute became more popular after September 2001, but then sales practically died because of the general fear of parachuting. He figures maybe 10 to 20 emergency parachutes sell each year and he doubts industry-wide that more than 200 have sold since 9/11.

Actually, parachutes in general, including those for the military, are not a big business in America. Cliff Schmucker, president of the Parachute Industry Association, figures there are only about 25 domestic producers of major parachute components and full-fledged parachute systems. In their entirety, he estimates they generate annual sales of roughly $85 million.

The bottom line, though, at least as Dr. Lateiner sees it: “If you live in a high-rise apartment in New York City — and hundreds of thousands of people do — own a parachute or prepare to live and maybe die in your own towering inferno.”

The New York Sun

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