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Escape hatch seizes inventor

Published Sep. 26, 2005

A former machinist puts thousands of hours into a device to enable mobile home residents to escape fires. He has a patent and prototypes.

If Carl Shepherd's mobile home ever caught fire, he would probably stand a better-than-average chance of escaping the flames.

Shepherd has invented an escape hatch, and has one in his bedroom. He has built and installed two, one in each end of his mobile home. Though the invention is in its early stage of development, Shepherd has obtained a patent. He has built only a few escape hatches, and is trying to sell his concept to a manufacturer. He does not sell the hatches to the public _ yet.

But he is convinced the hatch works and he can demonstrate the ease of opening one. The hatches are carefully designed, fitting snugly and are weatherproof. The device is locked so it can't be entered from the outside. "They can be opened by a toddler, an elderly or weakened person and can accommodate just about any size person," he said.

Shepherd has pictures of a 20-month old, a 90-year-old man and a 390-pound man each opening the hatch and escaping through the opening. The process is about as simple as opening a car door and giving the hatch a small push.

"They will save lives," he said, referring to the recent death of a Homosassa Springs man, trapped inside his mobile home by a fire.

The hatches are installed in the wall, flush with the floor. To open it, a person grabs two recessed levers and pulls down. The hatch, resting on a slippery piece of hardened plastic, falls to the ground.

"I've got it at floor level so you can just crawl to it," he said. "That way you can escape the smoke."

Shepherd's hatch was a result of his knack for mechanical inventions and his concern about fatal mobile home fires. He keeps a notebook that contains the mechanical specifications of his inventions, and at the back, dozens of newspaper clippings about mobile home fatalities.

Those clippings inspired him to build the hatch. The effort to raise thousands of dollars to obtain a patent have left him financially strapped.

"I borrowed money from relatives and friends to make the patent payments," he said. "I just get by on a small pension."

A deeply private man, Shepherd refused to divulge his age, was hesitant about granting an interview and turned down a request for a photograph to accompany this story.

His work to build the escape hatch, however, is nothing short of a great triumph for him. Based on his experience working in the master machinists' division at a General Motors plant in Indianapolis, Shepherd knew the obstacles of mass production.

"I knew that if I took this hatch to a small manufacturer, the first question they would ask me is "how much would it cost to tool up for job,' " Shepherd said.

So to build his seven prototypes, Shepherd built his own production system. He didn't just buy the parts at a hardware store _ he built his own machines, work stations, dies, pipe cutters and a myriad of other tools to mass-produce the hatches.

He also designed the production system so that people in wheelchairs could work on the assembly line.

"I've got thousands and thousands of hours invested in this," he said.

Shepherd is now approaching the end of his production process. Parts of the assembly line are on his back deck, hanging on the inside walls of his living room, and under cloth covers on his front porch.

"I want to be able to attract a cabinet company or a small furniture manufacturing company to build these things," he said. "I've figured they can be mass-produced for about $100 to $150 each."