Near-disasters have helped generate three products to help people escape from burning buildings:
* Smoke billowed into Donald P. Soucy's Arlington apartment from a fire next door, forcing him to retreat toward a bedroom window and to consider choosing between asphyxiating or leaping from the fourth story. But then firemen broke through the front door. Today, Soucy is gearing up to produce SafeEscape, a ladder that attaches perpendicular to one side of a house, folds horizontally when not in use and opens with the touch of a foot on the top.
* When brothers Neil and Mark Phillippi and their wives pulled up to their Las Vegas hotel, they found it ablaze. Their close call at the MGM Grand inspired their father Fred to join forces with a mechanical engineer to develop and market a portable winch and cable called the Evader. The free end hooks onto any solid object as an anchor. The device includes parachute-type leg and shoulder straps. It features a handle to control the rate of descent.
* Chicago businessman Harold Rodin found that he had been swindled when he purchased 40,000 shares of stock in a new company and agreed to be the Illinois distributor for its device, called the Emervac. So he formed his own company and took over the product, renamed the Escape-It. It also is a portable winch and cable, but a friction brake controls the rate of descent, and the user hangs on to the strap, which passes around his or her torso.
Soucy had moved to this area from Lowell, Mass., during the 1964-'65 recession, had worked as an accountant for small businesses and had run the Galley, a piano bar at the foot of Courthouse Road in Arlington, for about 2 1/2 years until May 1977, when two patrons attacked him. Severe cuts to both wrists left him with $29,000 in medical costs, with only partial use of one arm. He says he came up with his idea while doodling.
Four bolts secure one upright of the aluminum and stainless-steel ladder along the outside of a house. The rungs and the second upright fold into the attached upright when the ladder isn't being used, leaving a 3-by-3 1/2 inch protrusion that looks like a downspout.
The ladder can be unfolded only by releasing a catch on the top; someone climbing out of a window can do this by pressing on the top with a hand or foot. An unwanted visitor standing on the ground cannot unfold the ladder and use it to enter the house through a window.
The ladders can be installed above one another on houses with three or more stories. Special latches automatically unfold each ladder as the one above it opens.
SafeEscape is requiring its dealers to pay $5,000 for a minimum stock of 30 ladders and to sell them in 60 days. "If you don't, you lose your franchise," but "once you accomplish that feat, the dealership is yours for life," said William F. Buck, a long-time friend of Soucy, who holds a dealership in Upper Marlboro with his sister Carol Buck.
Buck and Soucy spoke separately about the importance of making sure that everyone in a family--especially small children--climbs the ladder enough times to feel safe on it before an emergency occurs.
Soucy has an assembly line set up in Johnstown, Pa.
Phillippi's company, Personal Safety Devices Inc. of New Philadelphia, Ohio, began producing the Evader in December. His partner, Robert Akens, has done work for Hardy Coal Co., where Phillippi is in charge of sales and coal reserves.
The partners said they have spent more than $250,000 of their own money to get the company going. More than 100 of the 135 units produced so far have been sold, mostly to persons who live in the second to 15th stories of buildings, Phillippi said.
After the Evader was tested by lowering concrete blocks from a 225-foot boom on a mining machine, Phillippi said he tried it at heights up to 13 or 14 stories and, although he was "apprehensive," he says, "it felt great."
He stresses the advantages of controlling the rate of descent by turning the handle.
On the other hand, Escape-It sales manager John Seplak lauds his product's friction-brake system as "very proven, very effective," and says he believes automatic descent is the best approach because a user with no training is liable to panic and otherwise might lose control.
About 1,000 Escape-Its have been made since October, and Seplak says that more than 400 have been sold so far from the company's Chicago headquarters.
Seplak was a fireman when he met owner Roding through a mutual friend. He tested the device from the fifth and 10th floors of a building on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.