October 15, 2013 in City

Doug Clark: Fire Escape of Doom sparks the imagination

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

A photo like this one taken of the old Armory building’s fire escape to nowhere got huge traffic on Reddit and other social media last week.
(Full-size photo)

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If the Internet excels at anything, it’s the ability to share instantly the craziest stuff with thousands upon thousands of people who appear to have nothing really better to do than spend their time looking at crazy stuff on the Internet.

Case in point is an ancient, sections-missing metal fire escape in Spokane that became a topic du jour on Reddit – a popular website that serves as a bulletin board for social happenings, entertainment and news of the weird.

Reddit users post their offerings, which are then open to observations that range (as with all Internet commentary) from the sensible to the snarky to the outright psychotic.

Take the fire escape snapshot, which was submitted 11 days ago along with the following header:

“A fire escape in Spokane, WA. (It has been like this for over two years.) Survivors of any fire will gain immediate entry to US Track & Field’s national competition in the broad jump.”

The dark humor and suggested threat to public safety ignited a blaze of interest that, at last check, has swollen to nearly 715,000 views and 570 comments.

Some of my favorites are …

• “Does anyone else think about Lord of the Rings when the fellowship is trying to get out of the mines, and they have to do a jump just like that?”

• “Not as good as that cheese-eating wheelchair lady at Riverfront Park though!”

• “What about the bag lady on Sprague who talks to car tires?”

• “That place looks badass.”

But a question remained …

Is Spokane really home to such a Fire Escape of Doom?

I decided to embark on a Hobbity quest to find out.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to consult Gandalf for directions.

Not long after the photo appeared, it was connected by some of the comments to the hulking old Spokane Armory building at 202 W. Second Ave.

Ah, the Armory.

When I was a little Davy Crockett-obsessed kid, I thought of the Armory as our version of the Alamo.

I didn’t know beans about the building’s rich history, of course, like how it was built in 1907 as a home for our National Guard and a stockpile for weapons.

An Internet search told me that President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech there in 1919. Patrice Munsel, our homegrown opera star, sang for servicemen at the Armory during World War II.

Interesting.

But what I remember most about the Armory dates back to the mid-1960s, when live rock ’n’ roll shows were held in the building’s 6,000-square-foot ballroom.

In 1964 or maybe ’65, my parents dropped me off at the Armory where I saw Gary Lewis and the Playboys.

This diamond ring doesn’t shine for me anymore …

Where was I?

Oh, yeah. The fire escape.

The Armory’s military connection disappeared in the late 1970s.

Today, the building is home to the climber’s haven Wild Walls, Laser Quest, SNAP (Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners) and a martial arts studio.

Plus one of the most decrepit excuses for a fire escape you’ll ever see.

I found it on the north side of the Armory, which faces Pacific.

There it was, just like in the Reddit post.

Although that photo just shows one section. The escape has also been chopped off high above the ground in a couple of places, which suggests the following to the casual observer:

If the flames don’t get you, the fall certainly will.

“Not good!” said an older man who was getting into his truck when I directed his gaze to the building and asked for his thoughts about the fire escape.

But could such an egregiously unsafe situation like this really be allowed to exist?

“Dude, it’s a climbing gym,” argued one of the Reddit comedians, “the fire hazard and life threatening escape route are part of their marketing strategy.”

Really?

Or is this one of those optical delusions. You know, where things are not always as they seem.

Yep.

The Armory “is safe,” said Deputy Fire Marshal Shannon Millard.

According to Millard, the old fire escape was condemned and “decommissioned” years ago. An in-building stairwell exit was added in case of fire or other emergencies.

Chunks of the antique escape were lopped off to keep hobos and hoodlums from breaking into the Armory.

But why not tear the whole hideous thing down?

“It is one of those things that would cost more money than it was worth to tear it down,” said Phil Sanders, who has worked at Wild Walls for 10 years.

The Spokane Fire Department could always order the escape removed, of course. But according to a fire official I spoke with, that isn’t likely to happen during our current mayoral regime.

“We’re continually in a vise grip of extreme pressure from City Hall not to cost business owners money,” the official noted.

Thank you, Mayor Condon.

And so Spokane’s Fire Escape of Doom will stay where it is to provide Internet fodder and befuddlement from those who happen by.

Even experts can be fooled by the sight, as proven by the following text message that was sent to me Friday by Spokane Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

“NOT good. Just drove by it. Inconceivable.”

So that sums it up. I could probably write more, but I think I’ll head off on another quest to meet that bag lady who talks to tires.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@spokesman.com.


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