Parachutes for High-Rise Safety?

Nov. 6, 2001 -- In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, some parachute manufacturers are marketing their products as a safety device to those who live or work in skyscrapers.

Some of the workers trapped by fire in the World Trade Center jumped out of windows to flee the heat, smoke and flames.

Could an escape parachute have saved them? Some manufacturers say the chutes can save lives. They are marketing them as safety devices, saying they are a great last resort for those trapped in a fire.

Good Morning America's consumer correspondent Greg Hunter said the parachutes, sold to consumers with no jump training, could be extremely dangerous.

Harold Schaitberger, head of the International Firefighters Association, said conditions at a high-rise fire make parachuting nearly impossible.

"Even experienced jumpers can't handle the kind of turbulence," Schaitberger said. "You have plumes of smoke, you have turbulence, and you have wind shears as strong as thunderstorms created by that fire."

Trained to Jump

Jason Bell is an expert "base jumper." He leaps off buildings and other tall objects with the aid of a modified, hand-deployed parachute. Bell has jumped hundreds of times, even though it's illegal to base-jump off of buildings. He said it takes training and experience to base-jump without injury.

"There is no way someone could safely go out and jump from a building without the proper training," Bell said.

John Rivers, owner of Executive Chute, one of the companies marketing parachutes as a safety device, doesn't see training as an issue. He suggests consumers read the directions that accompany the chute.

"At the very last moment if you have no other choice … I'm simply going to climb over the ledge, push my self off and jump," said Rivers. "This cord will automatically open up the chute and everything from there is natural." Rivers has never used the Executive Chute himself.

Hunter said a lot could go wrong for untrained jumpers. If winds are blowing at more than five miles per hour, they might be slammed back into the building they jumped from. Jumpers can also get wrapped up in their chute, said Hunter.

Chutes used by base jumpers like Bell can be steered. Rivers' Executive Chute has no steering mechanism, according to Hunter. Rivers said he offers a training videotape with every parachute he sells.

The Dummy Jump

The Executive Chute has been tested — but not from a city high-rise. Instead, it was tested from a crane parked in a field in rural Michigan, using a dummy jumper.

Hunter said he found six companies selling escape parachutes — some on the Internet — for prices ranging from $800 to $1,600. None of the companies requires jump training before purchase. Each said their parachutes are safe and to be employed for last-resort use only.

Executive Chutes says it has sold 200 parachutes. Rivers admits there is no guarantee the device will save your life.

"I'm the only guy in the world offering a product you hope like hell you'll never have to use," Rivers said.