The scenario is frightening familiar to firemen in big cities across the country, where skylines have been pushing higher and higher with every year.
Aerial ladders feebly stretching upward, but stopping aeves of floors short of reaching the flames spewing menacingly out of windows of a high-rise office building.
Exhausted firefighters with heavy steel oxygean cylinders blindly groping their way up steep stairs because heat-sensitive call buttons have sent every elevator to the fire floor.
Office workers painfully overcome - some fatally - because they followed instructions and took the stairwell, not knowing that it suddenly would become filled with thick, smothering smoke that naturally seeks such funnels.
Flimsy partitions buckling under the heat, as flames dance from office to office, and acrid smoke from plastic furnishings - denied an escape through sealed windows - rushes into air-conditioning ducts and is carried to other floors.
The holocaust depicted in the popular movie "The Towering Inferno" hasn't reached Hollywood proportions in any of Manhattan's nearly 1,000 skyscrapers. But fire safety experts and public officials are increasingly raising their voices about the potential for disaster.
New York City's fire department battles 150 to 180 highrise office-building fires a year, and while most have been extinguished quickly and without loss of life, the city has had its share of tragedies.
In 1970, two civilians were killed and 26 firemen injured in a $10 million blaze on the 33d floor of a gleaming, year-old office building at 1 New York Plaza. The same year, three persons died and 20 were injured in a fire on the 47th floor of the Carpet Center Building on Third Avenue.
Elsewhere in 1970, fire ravaged the 35th floor of a San Francisco skyscraper, and five lives were lost in a fire in Chicago's 38-story Hawthorne House. Twenty-six persons died in a Montgomery, Ala., residential highrise fire in 1967 and 10 perished in an Atlanta residential skyscraper blaze in 1972.
(Although the District has a 13-story limit on the height of buildings, there is no similar limit in the adjacent jurisdictions, where buildings soar to 26 stories and above. However, fire regulations are murky because each of the many jurisdictions sets its own laws.)
Firemen have been warning of skyscraper catastrophies since the urban building book of the early 1960s, but a controversial decision handed down in Manhattan State Supreme Court last week has revived interest in the potential for disaster.
Justice Irving Kirschenbaum, ruling in favor of a group of large real estate owners, declared unconstitutional several sections of a tough fire law drafted in 1973 by former New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay.
The voided sections included requirements for subdivided floor space for fire containment, pressurized stairwells, automatic communications systems and sprinklers, and the appointment of fire wardens on every floor.
Left standing were provisions ordering landlords to install devices that automatically send elevators to ground floors in the event of fire, and to have safety plans and fire drills.
Lawyers involved in the suit said that public safety officials in many large U.S. cities closely followed the trial, and that an expected appeal of Krischenbaum's ruling to higher courts could result in a landmark decision for safety codes.
However, New York Fire Commissioner John T. O'Hagan bitterly assailed the lower court ruling, saying it "has the potential for costing lives."
"The law was designed to contain the size of a fire in a high-rise building. Sooner or later we are going to have a serious fire and the press and the public are going to ask us why we did not try to prevent it, and I am telling you now we are not being allowed to prevent it," O'Hagan said.
The landlords and building contractors have another perspective.
In interviews and in court testimony, they argued that even if compliance with the new code could be achieved at the lowest cost cited by O'Hagan, safety modifications to existing skyscrapers would cost the real estate industry $100 million. And even then, they contended, there would be no guarantee of increased safety.
Moreover, they maintained, of the 281,000 fire-related deaths in the nation between 1950 and 1973, only eight occurred in completed high-rise office buildings. Those statistics, the builders conceded, did not include the most devastating high-rise fires in residential buildings, or fires in technically uncompleted office skyscrapers, such as the two that burned in Manhattan in 1970.
One outspoken group advocating changes in New York's high-rise fire codes has been the Center for Urban Environmental Studies at the Polytechnic Institute of New York in Brooklyn.
Paul R. DeCicco director of the center, said in an interview that the dimensions of the hazards are as broad as "the incalculable number of sizes and shapes and designs of nearly 1,000 office buildings constructrd here in a period of 100 years, encompassing five or six different building codes."
While refusing to characterize the skyscrapers as "firetraps" DeCicco said, "They have the potential for great tragedy because their designs are basically flawed in terms of" fire safety. More than a million people work in the buildings daily, he said.
The biggest problems, he said, stem from the "chimney action" found in most high-rise stairwells, where heavy, cold air outside and warmer air inside tend to funnel smoke upward in the winter - or downward on hot summer days when the temperatures are reversed.
"Because of this, smoke wants to get into the stairs, where people are supposed to congregate for their escape route. It couldn't be a worse place to be," DeCicco said.
The smokestack effect has caused almost all high-rise fire deaths in New York City, and to counter it, Polytechnic, working with a study grant from the city, has attempted to perfect stairwell pressurization systems that can be economically installed in skyscrapers.
In one test, Polytechnic achieved satisfactory results by installing a 20-horsepower fan at the base of a stairwell, and a three-horsepower exhaust fan on the roof. Working in tandem, the two fans created enough atmospheric pressure inside the stairwell of a test building in lower Manhattan to prevent large amounts of smoke from entering the chamber even with several fire doors opened.
Working with the fire department, DeCicco set a series of serious fires inside the building, which was scheduled to be raze anyway. As the fires blazed - at temperatures reach 1,500 degrees Farenheit within four minutes of ignition - Polytechnic observers measured smoke levels with detection devices located throughout the building.
"Fire was billowing out all the windows, but the firemen comfortably walked up and down the stairs, unhindered by smoke. Without the pressurization, they would have been asphyxiated," DeCicco said.
An important consideration, DeCicco allowed, is not increasing the atmospheric pressure so much that occupants will be unable to open the fire doors to the stairwell.
Polytechnic conducted similar experiments on scale models of skyscraperrs, using smoke candles and wind tunnels, and claimed they showed pressurization is feesible.
Nevertheless, Kirschenbaum found that "the absurdity of maintaining a smoke-free stairwell, which, in the event of over pressurization, would be inaccessible to tenants attempting to flee . . . is clear, and such a condition would be patently intolerable."
Further, the judge declared, forcing compliance of the pressurization requirement would necessitate a "massive construction program" that, besides its prohibitive costs, would be "clearly hazardous to the working population of these buildings."
Similarly, the costs of compartmentation of office floors into fire-secure chambers would be prohibitive without contributing significantly to fire safety, he ruled.
The linchpin of the now-voided 1973 high-rise fire code, in the view of DeCicco, O'Hagan and other fire safety experts, is the choice builders were forced to make between compartmentation and sprinkler system. Both systems they observed, can substantially reduce landlords' fire insurance premiums.
"What's really needed is a large amount of air thrown into the stairwells to allow people to escape. Lacking that, sprinklers or compartmentation is the next best thing. But lacking any of these, we are courting the potential for disaster someday," said DeCicco.
Recalling the movie "The Towering Inferno," DeCeicco said, "it was a composite of what the (screenwriters) considered to be the worst possible case. But for all its fabrication, it really wasn't what could be the worst case here or in any other city."
Thinking of past skyscraper fires, he added: "While the evidence of deaths so far is not staggering, compared to other things, the potential for large numbers of deaths is there."