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St. John's Journal of Legal Commentary


Imagine this: You are a member of a commission charged with recommending changes to the building code of a densely-packed urban city, say New York. Your recommendation is that high-rise office buildings are overly safe and that your city should relax its codes. That, more or less, is what happened in New York in 1968. Fifty-seven years after the Triangle Waist Company fire, in which 146 people trapped in the upper floors of an unsafe building burned, jumped, or fell from a collapsed fire escape to their deaths, New York City relaxed its safety rules for high-rise buildings.

In his outstanding historical account, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America, David Von Drehle makes the cogent case that building-safety laws matter. And in their equally outstanding retelling of the 2001 World Trade Center attack from the perspective of those trapped inside the burning buildings, 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive inside the Twin Towers, Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn make the explicit case that we have forgotten this lesson.

The parallels between the books and the events they portray are remarkable. In each case, we are reminded of the incentives that cause developers to squeeze the maximum amount of rentable space onto each expensive square foot of urban land. We come to understand the competing stresses on city bureaucrats charged with drafting and enforcing safety rules for high-rise buildings. We are treated to careful descriptions of the structures that inevitably result from these economic forces and safety rules. And we then watch a pair of disasters unfold, two miles and ninety years apart.

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