The first clang of the alarm came as many residents of the modern high-rise in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, were sitting down to brunch or opening the Sunday paper. Quickly came the screams — “Fire!”— and an acrid smoke that blackened windows and seeped under doors and through air vents. Few knew exactly where in the 42-story building the fire was. Some tried and failed to reach 911 operators, who were overwhelmed by calls. Many decided to flee.
Daniel McClung was one of them. He and his husband, Michael Cohen, scooped up their two dogs and left their 38th-floor apartment. They reached only the 31st floor before they were overcome by smoke, fire officials said. Mr. McClung, a 27-year-old playwright, died. As of Monday, Mr. Cohen, 32, an online video producer, remained in intensive care at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital. Their two dogs, Schooner and Georgia, also died.
It is a basic human instinct reinforced by countless grade-school fire drills: When you see flames or smell smoke, get out. In New York, where the reminders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack are omnipresent, the fates of those who waited and became trapped in the burning towers serve as a lesson for many, not least the people who live in high-rises like the Strand, the site of the Jan. 5 fire that killed Mr. McClung. But in modern high-rise buildings, fire safety experts say, flight can be deadly.
As they raced down the stairs, the couple ran into a suffocating plume of smoke sucked upward as if through a chimney when firefighters opened the stairwell door and pushed into the burning apartment.
Had the couple remained in their home, Mr. McClung would have survived, officials said. The fire turned out to be isolated to an apartment 18 floors below where the couple lived. Because the building was constructed of fire-resistant materials, the blaze barely spread. Even residents who remained in apartments directly next door to the fire emerged unscathed.
A fire safety notice that is supposed to be affixed to every entry door makes clear that staying in place is often the safest strategy during a fire. Most residents interviewed after the fire said they had never seen the notice, had seen it long ago, lost it, or, treated it like a safety information card on an airplane, and simply did not read it.
Even among those who knew the rule, many said the first impulse was to run.
“The idea of staying in your apartment when there’s a fire sounds wrong,” said George Hahn, 43, who fled with his dog, Smokey, when the fire alarm sounded.
Since the invention of the fire hydrant and in-home smoke detector, advances in technology have drastically decreased the risk of dying in a fire. In recent decades, buildings have been constructed with flame-resistant materials, and metal, self-closing doors meant to isolate fires once they break out.
Of the 67 fire deaths in the city last year, only 18 occurred in such buildings, almost all of them in the apartment that was actually on fire, according to the Fire Department.
Even so, no building is completely safe, and officials periodically update standards to deal with new problems or take advantage of new technology.
In 1998, four people died from smoke inhalation in a stairwell of an Upper West Side apartment tower under conditions similar to those that killed Mr. McClung. After that fire, which broke out in the apartment where the family of the actor Macaulay Culkin lived, a law was passed requiring all new high-rises and those undergoing major renovation to have sprinkler systems. A 2008 law required new buildings over 125 feet tall to have emergency intercom systems.
The Sept. 11 attack and the advent of residential supertowers, some exceeding 100 stories, have prompted engineers and fire officials to take a fresh look at fire safety in tall buildings, said Chris Jelenewicz, an engineering program manager at the Society of Fire Protection Engineers, based in Maryland.
Wider stairwells, advanced sprinkler systems and alarms that give precise instructions during an emergency would make buildings safer, he said. Someday, he said, elevators designed to withstand fires and earthquakes could be used to quickly evacuate buildings during an emergency.
In any case, Mr. Jelenewicz said, information is key.
“To really make these systems work you really need to educate the occupants,” he said.
The Strand, which opened in the late 1980s, was built with fire-resistant materials, plasterboard walls and metal doors designed to withstand a blaze for up to three hours, the Fire Department said. It does not have sprinklers or an intercom system.
After the fire there, friends of Mr. McClung and Mr. Cohen created apetition on the website change.org calling for legislation that would require residential high-rise buildings to have public address systems to provide timely information in case of an emergency. Corey Johnson, a City Council member whose district includes Hell’s Kitchen, has proposed a bill that would require such systems in buildings over six stories.
“Many people don’t know whether they live in a fireproof building and don’t know whether they should stay or go during an emergency,” Mr. Johnson said at a news conference last week. “Daniel’s life would have been saved if he had stayed in his apartment, but he wasn’t given proper instructions when the fire broke out.”
When the fire alarms sounded in the Strand about 11 a.m. that chilly Sunday morning, reactions varied. Some stayed in place and hoped for the best, stuffing wet towels into air vents and the spaces under doors. Others threw on clothes, grabbed children and pets and ran. One man in an apartment a floor above the fire was seen furiously scrubbing the railings and glass of his terrace with a rag apparently trying to keep the soot at bay.
Another resident, Nina Regevik, a physician who is a member of an emergency response team created in New Jersey after the Sept. 11 attack, said she was fully aware of the fire safety procedures in her building. But when someone outside her apartment yelled “Fire!” and told everyone to evacuate, she said she defied her training, picked up her cat and fled with her partner.
“Despite how many years of training and hearing what one should do, that was totally trumped by hearing someone in a very worrisome voice saying ‘Get out, get out, fire,’ ” she said.
At one point a jet of flame shot out over 10th Avenue and white-hot metal rained down on the street, witnesses said. The fire burned about two hours.
With their two dogs, Mr. McClung and Mr. Cohen rushed into Stair A, one of two stairwells in the building. Though they had no way of knowing it, this was a serious mistake.
Because Stair A housed the building’s red-painted standpipe, an innovation in tall buildings that feeds water to fire hoses, firefighters designated it their “attack” stairway, said Francis X. Gribbon, the Fire Department’s chief spokesman.
Mr. McClung and Mr. Cohen were probably overcome after the firefighters opened the door from the stairwell to smoke coming from the partly opened door of the burning apartment.
If evacuation is imperative, Mr. Gribbon said, as a general rule, a stairwell without a standpipe should be used. In the Strand, the second stairwell, Stair B, remained largely free of smoke during the fire.
Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano said he was creating a task force that would meet with residents of high-rise buildings about proper safety procedures.
At the Strand last week, workers scrubbed the walls of Stair A, which was still coated in soot. Mr. Cohen, who remains sedated, has not yet been told of his husband’s death, said Javier Morgado, a close friend of the couple’s.
“The emotional toll of this has yet to even begin as far as it concerns Michael,” he said.