A Net Plus for Safety, Ralph Baker's Life Chute May Save Lives in High-Rise Fires

updated 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

This time, tragedy was the mother of invention.

Ralph Baker, a third-generation trucker who runs his own company in Wilmington, Del., was watching TV news one night in 1980 when he saw scenes of the deadly MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas. Eighty-four people were killed in the blaze and hundreds more were reported injured. Most of the victims had been trapped on the 26-story building's upper floors, beyond the reach of fire-department ladders. Baker vowed to do something about it.

"A lot of people wait for bad things to happen, then try to figure out what to do," says Baker, 55. "Not me. When I see a problem in the making, I try to head it off before it can occur." The result is the Baker Life Chute, a nylon mesh contraption that looks like a giant-size stocking and, says the inventor, could save lives in similar high-rise fires in the future.

Life Chutes may be attached to buildings permanently by means of steel frames, and there are portable models, weighing approximately 20 pounds per story, that can be taken where they are needed, up as high as 20 floors. To escape from a high rise, a person simply climbs from the window or rooftop feet first and slides all the way to the ground, with the flexible curve of the chute acting as a brake. To prove its safety, Baker at first climbed out of a five-story fire-fighter training building in Dover, Del., then moved on to high rises. In 1984 several volunteers, including Baker's daughter, Dawn, 25, and his 4-year-old grandson, Mark, chuted safely from the top of a 16-story dormitory at the University of Delaware. Both emerged smiling and unscathed ("It turned out to be just like going down a giant slide," says Dawn), as did Wayne Carter, a 36-year-old paraplegic who took the plunge with them.

So far two fire departments have bought the Baker chute, and the inventor hopes there will be many more. "With the portable models, we can come off a building rooftop, off a balcony or out a window," says Wilmington Fire Chief Sean Mulhern, whose department has purchased five Life Chutes ranging from four to 20 stories in length. "Anyone, any age, can use the chute safely." A protective opaque cover can be placed around the top of the chute to block a user's vision and keep him from being immobilized by acrophobia. "There's no perception of height," says Chief Mulhern. "It's like going down a sliding board, and it's easy to regulate your speed."

"I've been down it several times," says Statesville, N.C. Fire Chief Glenn O'Ferrell, another enthusiast. "You have no sensation of height or of falling, and the control is amazing. Even my wife thought so, and she's not what you can call an adventurous soul."

As the chutes gain acceptance, Baker hopes to make models available (including those for homes, hotels and office buildings) at an approximate cost of $100 to $200 per foot. But profit, he says, will be the least of his satisfactions. "Maybe one day I'll turn on a newscast and see people sliding down my chute and saved from dying in a fire or earthquake," he says. "Then all the time and money I've invested will have been a small price to pay."

—Written by Jim Calio, reported by Andrea Fine

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