Taking safety seriously

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Taking safety seriously

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohoku in March 2011 sent tremors as far as Tokyo. The 13-floor building in Tokyo’s Ginza District, where the JoongAng Ilbo’s Tokyo office is located, also shook. The tenants get quake drills each month.

The supervisor of the building always reminded us that we should stay inside because “the building is safe thanks to its design, which can withstand a quake as strong as 7.0-magnitude.” That same man was the first to race down the emergency stairs when a real quake hit. It is human instinct to panic in the face of a disaster or crisis. Composure is only possible through repeated training and self-control.

The crisis management at Morgan Stanley is a legendary example. The bank was the biggest tenant in the World Trade Center with over 2,700 employees working in the south tower, headquartered on the 73th floor of the doomed high-rise building on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001. Over 250 customers were also in the office to listen to an investment lecture.

Panicked cries were everywhere as they watched people plunge to their death from the north tower. Then they heard a familiar voice through a bullhorn — their security head Rick Rescorla, a retired Army colonel, shouting at his colleagues, “Today is a day to be proud to be an American,” and calmly telling them to do exactly as they had practiced during fire evacuation drills.

His confident and resolute voice helped calm Morgan Stanley employees and they remembered their drills over the previous eight years. Ever since a truck bomb filled the World Trade Center with smoke in 1993, the company, under a program led by Rescorla, conducted a SWOT analysis of potential risks and developed a disaster response plan. The company held drills separate from those held by the New York Port Authority.

All employees had to go through a drill every three months. They had to memorize all the exit doors. Wardens were appointed to ensure all the staff exited the building promptly and safely. Each warden had to individually train staffers, making them meet at designated places on the stairs and measure the time needed for their evacuation. The employees — who trade securities worth million of dollars every second — obviously had a lot of complaints about the repetitive and tiring drills. Rescorla did not compromise.

Their preparedness paid off in the face of a real danger. In just 20 minutes, 2,687 out of 2,700 employees escaped the building along with all 250 clients. Rescorla raced back to the building in search of the missing staff. It was then that the tower collapsed, burying Rescorla and 12 others. He called his wife before the building gave way and told her not to cry as he was doing his duty.

The victims who died in a blaze at a fitness center in the North Chungcheong city of Jecheon last Thursday were not fortunate enough to have a reliable security chief like Rescorla. The building itself was inviting disaster. Its 356 sprinklers were useless and storage shelves blocked a fire exit. The space needed by fire trucks was occupied by illegally parked cars.

Since authorities and builders cannot be relied upon to care about public safety, we must take matters into our own hands. We should check exits when we go to public baths or noraebang (karaoke rooms) or other public places. We must examine the emergency stairs and upbraid building owners if fire exits are blocked.

When we make these habits common practice, our society will eventually change. A Rescorla does not come out of thin air.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 26, Page 34

*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Hyun-ki
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