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There’s no escaping ongoing safety risk

By Caley Clinton

Several fire escapes hang from buildings over an alley Friday in Milwaukee. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Stanley Forman’s award-winning photograph of a young woman falling to her death was taken almost 38 years ago in Boston, but it could be a photo as recent as tomorrow, from as close as Milwaukee or Madison or any Wisconsin community with tall, older buildings.

Forman snapped the harrowing photo July 22, 1975, as he covered firefighters’ attempts to rescue 19-year-old Diana Bryant and her 2-year-old goddaughter Tiare Jones from a burning building.

The image of Bryant falling headfirst, with Jones, panic-stricken, close behind her, is as horrifying now as it was when it ran on the front page of the Boston Herald all those years ago.

Just moments before the photo was taken, Bryant and Jones were standing on a fire escape as smoke and flames billowed out of the building behind them. As a fire ladder inched closer, the fire escape collapsed.

Would-be rescuers only could watch in horror as Bryant and Jones fell.

Bryant died at the scene from her injuries. Jones, whose fall might have been cushioned by Bryant’s body, escaped without serious injury.

The photo of their fall, “Fire Escape Collapse,” won Forman a Pulitzer Prize. It also paved the way for Boston and several states to enact tougher fire safety codes.

The brick building and metal fire escape captured in Forman’s photo look like many buildings in downtown Milwaukee or in any older city.

Although laws no longer allow a building to be constructed with an exterior fire escape in Milwaukee, there are many older properties around the city where the aging metal structures still are necessary, said Bosko Plechas, a structural engineer and the owner of Cudahy-based Alpine Design & Inspection LLC.

“It’s not an option to just take it off,” he said. “They would have to provide a separate egress, a stairway.”

Most of the time, Plechas said, the fire escapes “are as historic as the building themselves.”

“Some are corroded,” he added. “Some are not.”

The aging fire escapes are “quite impractical,” said Todd Weiler, certifications and communications coordinator for the Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services.

The city requires annual visual inspections of all fire escapes, he said. Then every five years, building owners must have a registered architect or a registered structural engineer examine the fire escape and write a report showing its condition.

Those five-year examinations often result in repairs, Plechas said, which ensure the fire escapes are safe for at least another five years, but typically the repairs will be good for 10 to 15 years.

A “definite issue” remains, however, he said. Many older buildings feature wood framing, to which the fire escapes attach. Even buildings with brick exteriors, Plechas said, often have wood framing inside. If the building catches fire, so could the wood framing holding the fire escape to the building.

It’s an ongoing weakness that shows that, although progress has been made since Forman captured that memorable image many years ago, fire escapes remain a hazard without a solid solution.

Caley Clinton is associate editor of The Daily Reporter. Around deadline, she can usually be reached on the fire escape of the Mackie Building in downtown Milwaukee.

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