There's an old comedy cliché about firemen holding a big net and asking people to jump to safety. Is this a fictional invention, or was there really a time when this was how we rescued people from burning buildings? If there was, what was the highest someone could leap from and be saved by a net being stretched between human hands??
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Fictional invention? Comedy cliché? Spoken like a true child of our coddled age. You think life nets are mythical because jumping into a patch of canvas from (say) 75 feet up seems insanely dangerous. Dangerous, sure, but insane? I don’t think so. Years ago those trapped in the upper stories of blazing buildings often faced a simple choice: leap or fry.
Life nets were one of many gambits by which the urbanites of a century ago coped with the joys of city life. If disease, filth, or poverty didn’t get you, there was a good chance fire would. The ability to construct tall buildings profitably far outstripped the means to make them safe. Fatal fires were an everyday occurrence. Newspapers and reformers campaigned for tougher laws and better firefighting equipment, but it took decades before these improvements had any effect.
In the meantime inventors came up with quick fixes, most based on the practical observation that if all else failed you could jump. People have been improvising nets since the first multistory hovel went up in flames, of course — I find reports of rescues using rugs, tarps, even a raincoat. Now more elaborate gimmicks were proposed, some of them fanciful. One basically consisted of two giant mattresses.
The device that caught on was the Browder life net, named for the fellow who patented it in 1887. This is the iconic net of the cartoons, consisting of a rigid circular frame with a round sheet of fabric stretched across the middle from springs, like a trampoline. You unfolded the net on arrival at the fire scene, got 10 to 16 firemen to hold it at shoulder height below a trapped victim, and hoped for the best.
The good thing, judging from old press accounts, was that a lot of times life nets worked. The bad thing was that seemingly just about as often they didn’t — deaths and injuries were common. The practical limit was believed to be six stories; New York City firefighters in 1900 routinely jumped into a net from that height during their training. Surviving a leap from a taller building wasn’t out of the question. In a 1930 Chicago fire three people jumped eight stories into a net: two suffered minor injuries, one bounced out and fractured her skull. One daredevil LA firefighter tested a life net from ten stories and landed without a scratch.
But that was rare. In the infamous Triangle garment factory fire of 1911, flames raced through the top three floors of a ten-story building in lower Manhattan. Scores of panicked workers, mostly young women, leaped from the windows. Some plummeted to the sidewalk even before firefighters arrived and set up their nets. Two women who had jumped together ripped through one net, followed close after by a third. Another woman landed in a net but died of internal injuries later. Deliverymen stretched out a tarp hoping to save some of the leapers; the first hurtling body ripped it from their grasp. With corpses literally piling up at the foot of the building, nets were soon abandoned as futile. In all, 146 people died.
Jumping from lower heights wasn’t much safer. Leapers sometimes struck something on the way down, landed on a fireman, or missed entirely. Things could go wrong even if you were on target. In 1910 four women made the mistake of clinging to one another as they jumped from a burning four-story factory in Newark, New Jersey. They tore through the net and were killed.
Despite these drawbacks, life nets remained a standard piece of firefighting equipment for years. As late as 1960 the Boston Globe saw fit to spend a full page explaining optimal leaping technique. (Hint: Jump in a seated position with your limbs out in front of you, trying to land on your butt or the small of your back.)
By the 1970s, though, life nets were on their way out. Hundred-foot aerial ladders had made rescue a less perilous proposition. The last mention of a net I could find was from 1983; current firefighting manuals don’t discuss them at all.
Still, the fundamental problem remains unsolved. Improvements notwithstanding, people still sometimes get trapped by fire in tall buildings — witness the desperate souls who leaped from the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Surely, you think, that qualifies as insane.
Maybe not. There you are on the hundredth floor, with a choice even starker than the one facing somebody staring down at a life net. If you jump, your chances of surviving are infinitesimal but arguably not zero. If you stay you have no chance at all. What do you pick?
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