My Turn: 9/11, The Jumpers, and a 'Rescue Reel'

Photos: Steel Beams Become Memorial Icons Photo: Al Goldis / AP

People started jumping almost immediately. On the West Coast, where it was still dark when the first plane hit the North Tower, I woke up 15 minutes after impact. The live coverage had already shifted from shots of people waving shirts from windows to people stepping into air, a desperate effort to escape the inferno. They weren't choosing to jump, I realized, but choosing how to die: not from smoke and fire but by taking a 1,000-foot fall. It was, of course, no choice at all. They had no other way down.

In those moments, my shock at watching the Twin Towers burn was replaced by anger at watching people fall. They tumbled in pairs and alone, leaping from every side of the buildings as police helicopters circled helplessly. More than 200 people died this way, according to a USA Today estimate. At least 1,000 more perished in the buildings, trapped by the blaze and unable to make it down the stairs.

Oddly, I remember thinking about fishing. If it's possible to reel in a 400-pound fish, I wondered, why can't someone "reel out" a 400-pound person? As an orthopedic surgeon and serial inventor—I hold more than 50 medical patents related to knee and joint surgery—I started making notes right away. It took more than a year for me to act on them. I assumed the tragedy would be a turning point for building safety, much like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 had spurred laws requiring fire escapes and other exits. Instead, the jumpers seemed to vanish from consideration.

So in 2003 I contacted the engineering firm Think2Build and laid out the challenge: to build a high-rise personal-rescue device that anyone could use—without training and no matter how panicked. Parachutes, slides, and external elevators all seemed impractical or overly complicated. But the fishing idea held promise. We developed a dual-spool device with a harness that could lower people on a line. We loaded it with rocks or weighted mannequins, testing from the roof of my four-story clinic in San Francisco.

Finally, in early 2009, after six years and $1 million, we debuted the Rescue Reel for firefighters in Vallejo, Calif. The finished product is a small wonder. It is less than 20 pounds (for the 100-story model), fits in a filing cabinet, and is ready to use in three steps: fasten the clip to a secure object, slip on the harness, and slide out a window. The 1,000-foot cord is equipped with an automatic braking system, so if you can make it out the window, you descend at no quicker than about two seconds per story (which means it would have taken about four minutes to flee the upper floors of the Twin Towers). Popular Science named it a 2009 invention of the year. And even at $1,500 each, it's cheaper and more reliable than an extra stairwell.

Now the challenge is production and distribution. We're negotiating with a U.S. manufacturer and fielding inquiries from would-be customers, including a private resident of San Francisco's Millennium Tower, a Ferris wheel operator, and the military, which sees the reel as a way to lower soldiers from helicopters or to give overseas ambassadors an emergency--exit plan from embassies. Rescue workers like the idea of lowering the device to stranded people and letting them drop down themselves, whether from a building or a cliff face. I can imagine applications on cruise ships and oil rigs.

But landlords of buildings above six floors—the point at which ladders often falter—should be the most interested. Someday, I believe Rescue Reels will be as commonplace as fire extinguishers, emergency exits, and sprinkler systems, all of which faced skepticism at first. Even if the nation's building codes aren't revised to require reels, building managers will market them (especially in earthquake-prone places like California) once they see that they work and their competitors have them. That's why this month marks the start of a personal countdown. By next year, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I hope to gift a batch to New York City.

Stone, an inventor and orthopedic surgeon, heads the Stone Clinic in San Francisco.