Fire Safety Lessons from The Towering Inferno -The Toast

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We’ve all been there: whiling away the time between a work day and the evening’s architectural launch party, loosening our collar and cuffs, maybe having a subtle romantic rendezvous with our secretary, the legendary actress and longtime Bold and the Beautiful mainstay Susan Flannery, when, suddenly, she turns post-coitally to us — Robert Wagner — and asks, “did you leave a cigarette burning?”

No, Susan, we didn’t. The building’s on fire.

towering inferno

Now what?

You, reader, have long since displaced the chipper memories of safety training classes from your cerebrum, instead packing the space with maps of where to find licensed bodegas with no card minimum after 3.a.m. You know darned well you’d be a sitting, roasting duck if fire broke out right now. Fine.

Thankfully, a hearty compilation of tips and tricks for fire preparedness and mid-fire behavior exists in the form of a classic fire-related film, at the end of which a number of people totally do survive: The Towering Inferno, which, as Roger Ebert argued in a later review of the film, is “three hours long, (and) cost something like $13 million to make, which was a lot at the time.”

First things first:

Preparedness, a.k.a. Warming Up:

“The most tangible of all visible mysteries: fire.”  – Leigh Hunt

“You know we haven’t even finished installing the safety equipment?” – Will Giddings, The Towering Inferno


fire dive

glass elevator

Windows are not your friends. Unlike your friends, windows will just as soon pop out of a dangling glass elevator causing old maid art teachers to drop to their deaths or give the fateful illusion of being a safe exit route for a flaming Robert Wagner as they will transmit light. Thinking about asking your contractor to install windows in your new home? Don’t be drawn in by glazier propaganda about using them to circulate clean air or crawl to safety. One compound word: deathtrap.


rope, rope, rope

Rope, rope, rope. The thing that you will need more than anything else to survive high-rise inferno is rope, and lots of it. Rope to anchor your helicopter, rope to rig the stress-busting, fun-for-all-ages zipline you’ll set up between the neighboring building and yours, and plenty of rope for when you, the mayor, and an aging Fred Astaire inevitably tie yourselves to pillars in the 135th-floor dining room so you don’t get washed away when Steve McQueen blows up the water tower, or something. Rope: cheap to stockpile, priceless in a fire.



Studies on this topic would very probably suggest — firmly — that able gymnasts are much more likely than laypersons to escape a building so badly charred and exploded that the stairwells look like playground monkey bars. Paul Newman was 49 when he did all his own stunts for this movie — shinnying down 12-foot pipes and climbing into air vents — and still had the energy to personally rescue a family of three. In basically any disaster-type situation, a healthy background in gymnastics or parkour is not to be sniffed at; not having one is arguably irresponsible. Bonus evidence: Kelly in The Lost World. Did she not just survive the film but also kick a velociraptor clear through a partition and onto a handy pike? You tell me.

kelly lost world


pj security

Who better to trust to protect your life’s work — and your life — than a former professional athlete (not THIS one, ideally)? Firefighters come and go, but payrolled former professional athletes guarding your building/embodying your cameos, well, they just last forever. [Tip: Don’t take all the fun out it for your former professional athlete by making the the alarm system display panel’s flashing lights indicate exactly where the trouble is. Give him/her a chance to stretch his/her legs a bit while he/she searches multiple floors. It’s kinder.]


since daddy died

As a slightly mousy, retirement-age children’s art teacher, you’re bound to invite your pupil’s deaf mother to the big architectural launch party that’s happening upstairs tonight, now and again.

But if you do, and your pupil’s deaf mother signs her response meaningfully to her daughter, and the little girl translates her deaf mother’s response as, “Mommy says thanks but she doesn’t go to parties since Daddy died”… well, you call Fred Astaire, tell him to meet you at a bar at least four streets away for your goldmine-the-naive-widow date, and then you run, damn you. Doubly so if the little sage girl’s brother is played by Bobby Brady. Studies show that people who adamantly refuse to heed harbingers of doom are typically fictional characters, and die horribly as such. Don’t be a statistic.



Brand new, 1,800-foot buildings are bustling places and their maintenance requires lots of oily rags. To keep any old Johnny-come-architecturally from walking off with one or more of your rags, make sure you store them in a locked, difficult to access, never-patrolled cubbyhole somewhere in the building. Be sure, however, to pick a spot you’ll remember should you need your oily rags: say, directly under the almost villainously crappily installed breaker box on floor eighty-something-or-other.

It’s 7ish pm on maybe a Friday night in 1974 — do you know where your oily rags were? Paul Newman didn’t.


Got all that? Good. Now you’re ready for your first big blaze.

How To Behave: Do’s, Don’t’s, Tips, Full Statements, And Maybe A Question Or Two

“Since the house is on fire let us warm ourselves.” – Italian Proverb

Chief “Steve McQueen” O’Hallorhan: You’ve gotta move all these people out of here.

James “William Holden” Duncan: Aw, now, just how bad is it?

Chief “SMcQ” O’Hallorhan: It’s a fire, mister, and all fires are bad.




Think there might be a fire? Go and have a look. Think it might be in the next room? You won’t know ‘til you try the handle and go on through. Still not sure? Take a peek in every room, closet, cupboard, and drawer — anywhere it could hide — and make sure to open each door very quickly in case the doorknob is hot. Think of it as game of hide and seek, if you like.

Any firefighter will tell you that survivors of both residential AND commercial fires always say the same thing when reflecting on their experiences afterward, snug under emergency blankets: “the hardest part was the not knowing,” they say, wincing slightly as the stitches land home. “If I could change one thing, just one, I would have confirmed the fire, up close with my own eyes, before dialing for help and potentially wasting everyone’s time. Better sorry than sheepish,” they sigh.



You’ve confirmed that there’s a fire in your home or place of business/treatment? Good. Quick as you can, go hide! Because, sadly, a healthy fire can draw all sorts — firefighters, police, onlookers, marshmallow-toasters, insurance salespeople, priests, teengers, the lot — and, frankly, you don’t know any of those firefighters from Adam, and the last thing you need right now is to be burgled or kidnapped.

If you’re a child, you’ll have plenty of options for cozy hiding places, like your closet or inside the washing machine. If you’re an adult, don’t overlook the possibility of barricading yourself in your office with your secretary/lover, but be sure to disconnect the office phone lines hours before the emergency but lie about it to your lover, pretending help is on the way. It’s kinder). And if Paul Newman tries hard enough, and you and/or your lover are good enough of heart, Paul Newman will eventually find you. Think of it as a game of hide and seek, if you like. One on which your life depends. Win, reader, win.



If Paul Newman’s not been by to round you up and you’ve tired of waiting for death with your post-coital secretary AND your entire outer-office is definitively engulfed in flame — bringing to mind the spewing, raging, deliriously hazardous stomach of Satan himself, but with fire instead of digestive juices — then, by all means, go see what’s doin’. But first, you’ll need a sopping wet shawl.

Clutch a wetted towel (here’s the tricky bit) not over your mouth and nose — so as to filter your breathed air for you somewhat — but rather over the back of your head as a cooling, comforting, and stylish shawl, giving your hands something to do. Then, and only then, wander panicked through the flaming ruins until your towel — as wet towels are sadly wont to do — is engulfed in flame. You may choose, as Robert Wagner did, to flail desperately until the flames are spread evenly over your body before diving from the 79th-floor window while Susan looks on, but if you do choose this method, then remember: make it your own.



According to the American Red Cross, only 26 percent of families have actually developed and practiced a home fire escape plan, which is about two to three times as many people as currently subscribe to America Online. Which is to say, making a home fire escape plan is unpopular, and your friends, lovers, kids, pets, parents, etc. will simply die of shame if you’re the only one in your building to get out alive without a cool skin-graft story to tell at parties.

Follow your instincts: if they say to go higher up in the burning building, do it. If they tell you to follow your hope of of survival right out the window, go for it. Like your child’s chosen career/tattoos/sexual identity/vaccination schedule, you can’t plan for a safe exit route in case of fire — you have to just let things play out. As an architect, Paul Newman’s character had planned for his to be a safe building, and look what happened to it (spoiler: not nice things).



This one’s easy to do, and easy to remember: in a fire, you’ll want to conserve your energy for gymnastic escapes, press junkets, and so on, so be sure to take the elevator as much as you possibly can. If, as pictured above, your first impression of the building’s mid-fire elevator performance is marred by the fatal scorching of Architectural Launch Party Male Guest #17, don’t let that one experience harden your heart or make an electronic bigot out of you. Keep trying, again and again, to escape 138 stories of skyscraping hell, that which has become a harrowing beacon heralding man’s hubris for trembling onlookers in a several-mile radius, via any remaining commercial elevators (for information on elevators constructed entirely out of Windows, refer to above section of that name).

Besides, elevators can be like Easter eggs: you never know what’s going to pop out, nor whose charred corpse you’ll bump into. Maybe that special someone’s.


every man

As ever, don’t try to be a hero. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen signed up for that job with their tersely negotiated dual-top billing, so, if you’re neither of them, they can damn well shoulder the burden themselves when any peripheral protagonists die horribly; you’ll just get in the way and embarrass yourself and others, very possibly right before they die, which is a rather shitty thing to do.

Fight. Fight them all off, regardless of age, gender, creed, or place in the credits. Your fault the building’s a death trap? Robert Vaughn of The Magnificent Seven trying to peel your selfish, yellow-bellied frame from what could be the last improvised-gondola ride off this thing? Fight harder. Kick him. Kick him in the chest until he falls to his better-paid-than-you death. There’s no “them” in “survival,” but there sure as hell is an “i.”


aim high, stay high

Whether you’re a fire professional, a fire amateur, or simply a fire enthusiast, the acronym G.A.S. will help fuel proper behavior and your escape.

1. Get High. If a fire breaks out on, say, the 81st floor of the building you’re inhabiting, drop what you’re doing, round up any deaf-mothered sage children if you absolutely have to, and head for the top floor. As many of you will remember from the scouts, below the fire is where the logs (or “fuel”) are, so make your way above the flames and enjoy the view while your rescuers do the jobs we pay them for with our taxes, more or less.

2. Aim High. If you’re fighting the flames as a professional firefighter or — should you be passably handsome and getting a slightly better SAG day rate — a hastily brave volunteer from the victim rabble, remember to aim your jet of water, foam, or powder at the very top of the flame, where the brainstem is, to take it down for good (you will observe the pleasant side effect of this method looking better on camera, too). You may think of it as a video game, if you like, or as a real-life, outside-the-box example of the proven effectiveness of trickle-down economics.

3. Stay High. Flame rises up, and so should you. Maintain good posture and keep your head held high above the flame so you have a good view of the room. If you’re worried about smouldering pancakes of asbestos-based ceiling panels landing in your hair when you’re striding about, then you have clearly ignored the above section about wetted shawls and have absolutely no one to blame but yourself for scalp burns.


split up

Two people can cover more ground than one, you greatly decrease — if not eliminate — your odds of falling victim to the next round of a-few-illustrative-deaths-picked-off-from-the-cowering-larger-group-by-new-threat-X-before-the-remaining-groupmembers- eyes-to-create-a-sense-of-urgency, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, Richard Chamberlain, your marriage to Susan Blakely wasn’t going great, anyway. No — the hell with putting it lightly: your marriage was a sham.


peer pressure

Hey. Fighting/being in/rescuing a bunch of day-rate nobodies from a fire… is tough. Anyone that says otherwise is full of it, or has been deliberately written into the script to set up dramatic irony and/or establish tension-building doubt for the protagonist to overcome, as with the archetypal ‘thule’ role in Western epics.

Remember, Steve McQueen, your name is as big as Paul Newman’s on the poster, and, as a result of prolonged, humorless negotiation between your legal representatives, your picture appears on the left side, with his on the right but slightly higher, so that, when averaging out the public’s tendencies to read from top to bottom or from left to right, you both can claim to be first billed, thereby establishing a method and layout for the balancing of movie posters featuring competitively A-listed actors for decades to come. This is your fire just as much as it is Paul’s. Make it your own.

That means, no, as a firefighter you don’t need to wear your standard-equipped oxygen mask in hallways, rooms, even whole stairwells filled with billowing smoke from unknown, dizzying, almost certainly carcinogenic mid-’70s building materials. It means, yes, you can carry the oxygen tank around throughout the film as one of a handful of half-hearted concessions to the methods of real firefighters and only really use it once or twice, even if this behavior sets both a bizarre and an unsafe example for your team members, most of whom go ahead and wear their masks, anyway.

Just follow your acclaimed instincts and be you, Steve McQueen. Be your wonderful, Academy-Award-nominated-but-not-for-this-movie self.


bastard final

Last and, with reasonable likelihood, not least, you find the bastard what did it and you hold him accountable for (depending on your role): ruining your enormous investment, ruining your very good name as an architect, ruining your chance at being gold-dug, ruining your chance to have one last fling with a forgivably untrustworthy Fred Astaire, ruining a good party with an open bar, unceremoniously killing Robert Vaughn (to whom you had planned to finally reveal your lifelong adoration tonight), being a shitty husband, being a shitty son-in-law, taking up far more screen time than his acting or complexity of character in this film warranted, etc.

Punch him in the gut, hold him while he’s being punched in the gut, look on with satisfaction while he gets punched in the gut, allow him to careen to his death via the zip line/gondola/looks-like-a-bell boy’s-luggage-cart-but-probably-isn’t thing, or get creative in your own way. Until you find this bastard and somehow represent his shortcomings through violence directed toward him (or, in the very least, a few stern, stern words), the film can’t end. And I think we’re all just about ready for that.


Wrapping Up: Putting It Into Practice

“Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” – Arnold H. Glasow

“We were lucky today. The body count was only 200. One of these days 10,000 people are going to die in one of these firetraps.” – Steve McQueen

Plutarch asserted that “the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” With the collective weight of eighteen additional centuries of hard-won civilization behind him, William Butler Yeats thundered back that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Both renowned thinkers seem to agree, at least, on one point: that the only way to get anyone to learn anything is to burn their shit down. Practice makes perfect, and you truly never know when a normal Wednesday in the office will turn into your very first blockbuster fire of technicolor proportions. So: get out there, be aware, be prepared, don’t play with flares, nor C4-filled bears, go set fire to a stack of chairs, and remember what you’ve learned.

Janet Burns writes, teaches, and amasses video tapes in Brooklyn, NY.

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