Because the building was made of fire-resistant materials, the flames never spread from that single unit on the 20th floor. Firefighters were able to extinguish the flames within two hours. 

However, one man died from smoke inhalation and several others were injured while trying to exit through stairwells. All residents that stayed in the building were unharmed, including those in a unit adjacent to the fire. 

Incidents like this call into question our instincts regarding high-rise fires.

“In fireproof residential buildings, 99.9% of the time you’re safer in your fireproof apartment,” FDNY chief of operations James Esposito told the New York Daily News

In most jurisdictions building management is responsible for distributing a fire safety guide each year. But it is the responsibility of tenants to know the fire safety plan and adhere to it in the event of an emergency. 

This begins with reading and understanding the fire-safety notice that is supposed to be fixed to the inside of each unit entry door. Also, investigate whether or not your building is made of fireproof materials and whether or not it has sprinkler systems and intercoms for receiving instructions from fire fighters. Remember that high rise buildings are usually high density structures so a mistake by any one person can affect many others.

Fire safety plans will be different for each building depending on its design and safety systems. However, the U.S. Fire Association offers these general tips for high-rise residents: 

  • Know what your building’s fire alarm sounds like. 
  • Take every alarm seriously.
  • Know your building’s evacuation plan and practice it.
  • Never disable any building or personal alarm
  • In the event of a fire, do not assume someone else has already called the fire department. Notify them right away.
Before attempting to open your unit door…
  • Check to see if the door is warm to the touch. If so, don’t open it. Stay inside.
  • Use towels or rags to stuff the cracks around the door to keep smoke out. Do the same with vents. 
  • Use a phone to alert rescuers of your exact locations. 
  • If possible, open a window and signal to rescuers below. 
  • Do not break windows because you may need to close them again to keep smoke out.
  • Be patient. Rescue could take hours.
If your unit door is cool…
  • You may choose to open the door just a crack while staying low to the ground and bracing the door with your body. 
  • If there is no smoke in the hallway or stairwells, you may choose to follow your building’s evacuation plan. 
  • Have your own escape plan and practice it.
  • Be sure you know two exits off your floor
  • Count the number of doors between yours and the exits so that you can find the exit in the dark
  • If you encounter smoke or flames on your way out, immediately return to your unit and follow the above instructions under “Before attempting to open your unit door…” 
The man who died in the New York City fire attempted to descend what is known as the “attack stairwell.” This is the stairwell firefighters use to access the building and to vent smoke away from burning floors. As a result, it is very dangerous for anyone to enter the attack stairwell from above. 

Stairwells with water pipes (These are called standpipes.) are typically designated as attack stairwells so that firefighters have quick access to water for their hoses. 

Locate the stairwell with the water pipe in your building and do not use it in the event of a fire.

Resources:

New York Daily News

U.S. Fire Administration