Yesterday, the NY Times published a column wondering, "And What if the Sept. 11 Museum Had to Be Evacuated?" And it turns out the museum actually was evacuated last week, during the preview period for select guests, like members of victims' families. No need for reporters, right?
The Times writer David Dunlap noted in his column that while exits were clearly marked and appeared close, "Evacuees, however, should not count on being able simply to go through a fire door and find a stairway leading directly to plaza level. Though some stairs do go straight up, most routes to safety include potentially disorienting transfer corridors that stretch 50 feet or longer." And it turns out that's exactly what educator Debbie Almontaser encountered during the evacuation.
“You’re seeing news reports, you’re hearing people’s voices, you’re hearing sirens,” she said. “There are even artifacts in there that have the smell of the day. I’m already feeling all this. I’m back in that moment.”
“And all of a sudden, you see flashing lights,” added Ms. Almontaser, describing pulsing strobes that accompanied the audible alarm. After a moment of confusion, she said, museum employees began receiving instructions over their earpieces. A female guard told Ms. Almontaser, “We’ve just gotten word that people should exit from the nearest exits.” The guard directed Ms. Almontaser and others to a door five feet away.
Instead of finding a stairway leading directly up, however, Ms. Almontaser said she and other evacuees faced a longer and more disorienting route. “You’d walk down a corridor, then walk up stairs, then down another corridor, then up another stairway,” she said. “I wasn’t able to keep count. ‘Oh my God, am I almost up there?’ That’s what was going on in my mind.”
The evacuation took about five minutes, Ms. Almontaser said. She said she feared most for a woman behind her whose breathing was labored as the 30 or 40 evacuees negotiated inclined, ramplike corridors. No one at the museum would explain what had happened, Ms. Almontaser said.
The museum is huge—it's 10,000 square feet, with six levels, most underground. Dunlap reported, "Stairwells and exit corridors were built to be blast-resistant, said Michael Frazier, a spokesman for the museum. That would indicate that they have been made of poured concrete or of grouted concrete block. The exit passages are also designed to resist fire for at least two hours." Also, the architects of the museum, Davis Brody Bond, said "refuge areas along the exit routes could temporarily shelter those who are in wheelchairs or otherwise unable to climb 70 feet."
The evacuation was due to a false alarm, and while no one was injured, Almontaser told the Times she wanted to talk about it because she did not "want to see anybody trapped down there and experience what I experienced."