Whether you consider them to be aesthetically pleasing or wrought-iron eyesores, fire escapes are part of New York City’s history. In response to the fire-related deaths of hundreds of tenants and workers, during the early 1900s the city mandated the inclusion of fire escapes. While the metal appendages were meant to be used as an escape route for residents and workers who were trapped by fire, they were more likely to be used for extra storage, outdoor gardens and a place to get away.
Despite the apparent benefits to building tenants, fire officials widely revered fire escapes as being dangerous as their use required individuals to crawl through open windows and attempt to safely traverse down a rickety stairwell to a second-story landing which often lacked a ladder to safety reach the ground. In addition to the general dangerous design, most landlords failed to maintain or repair fire escapes.
In 1968, the city banned fire escapes for newly constructed buildings. However, many of the iron skeletons still cling to the sides of older buildings. One such apartment building in Brooklyn was the scene of the recent and tragic death of a 21-year-old Broadway star named Kyle Jean-Baptiste. Upon finishing his last performance playing Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, Baptiste and a 23-year-old woman stepped out onto the fire escape at his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment.
Soon thereafter, police say Baptiste lost his balance when he stood up. He slipped and “fell backward onto the street below and died.” This promising young man’s death is a reminder of the dangers that fire escapes can pose to a building’s tenants. In this fatal accident, the condition of the fire escape is not known. In many cases, however, landlords fail to ensure that fire escapes are regularly inspected and maintained. Consequently, the already dangerous structures become accidents just waiting to happen.
Source: The New York Times, “Actor’s Fatal Fall Underscores Dangers of Fire Escapes, a Refuge for Many in the City,” Vivian Yee, Aug. 30, 2015