Central Library Burns; Damage Set in Millions : 44 Injured as Fire Takes Heavy Toll on Books and Artwork

Times Staff Writers

A fire that began in the stacks of Los Angeles’ Central Library raged out of control for six hours Tuesday, destroying or damaging many of the 2 million books, pictures and artwork housed in the downtown landmark. Damage estimates ranged into the tens of millions of dollars.

Forty-four firefighters were injured in the blaze, which began at about 11 a.m. in the periodicals stacks on the second floor of the three-story structure. Investigators said they had no idea what started the fire.

About 400 occupants--roughly 200 employees and a like number of patrons--responded to automatic alarms and were evacuated without incident when the fire was first reported.


It was first feared that virtually all books in the library were either destroyed by fire or damaged by water or smoke. But late Tuesday fire officials said after an inspection that they were “pleasantly surprised” to find some areas that appeared to be untouched.

Earlier, library Director Betty Gay had estimated that 25% of the books were destroyed by fire, and that because of the thousands of gallons of water sprayed through the building, “the whole collection is at risk.”

More than 250 firefighters, armed with hoses and wearing compressed air bottles, entered the inferno-like concrete and steel building in brief forays throughout the day but were forced back by clouds of steam that formed when water was sprayed on walls as hot as 1,000 degrees.

Firefighters controlled the fire at 5 p.m., and by 8 p.m. more than 100 library employees and employees of other city and nonprofit agencies had responded to requests to report to work to begin an all-night book salvaging effort.

“I had to come, it seemed unreal otherwise. Maybe I can retrieve some stuff,” said one library employee, Marianne Cummings.

Firefighters escorted the volunteers into the darkened, water-soaked library, breaking them into groups of five and handing each individual plastic sheeting to cover exposed books and other documents. Volunteers sloshed through wet, sawdust-filled floors lined with firehoses and whirring machinery used in pumping water out of the building.


Gay said the value of the library’s entire collection was estimated at $69 million four years ago, but she, Southern California scholars and library patrons emphasized that the loss ranged beyond dollars.

As the core of the city’s 62-branch public library system, the Central Library housed a myriad of historical material as eclectic as old telephone books and as vital as a detailed index to books about the history of Los Angeles.

Its specialized contents ranged from the Fourth Folio of Shakespeare’s collected works, published in 1685, to a large collection of photographs of early Los Angeles to the West’s only collection of U.S. patents and inventions.

“A good part of our collected memory is being lost,” said Fontayne Holmes, senior librarian in charge of inter-library loans.

‘Disaster for the City’

“I lost an old friend,” said Bill Fulmer, an attorney who uses the library several times a week as “an impulse (book) checker-outer. . . . I look upon it as a personal tragedy and a disaster for the city.”

Designed by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, who patterned it after his earlier creation of Nebraska’s state capitol, the library was dedicated July 15, 1926. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects declared it a distinctive Los Angeles landmark.

An exotic mixture of Byzantine, Egyptian and Roman revival-style architecture, the library is “a welcome sight among all the glass towers that have been going up around it,” library curator Betty Marsh said.

In recent years, as developers began to covet downtown real estate, the library became a hot topic of debate between preservationists and investors.

Unusual Agreement

As the result of an unusual agreement between the City Council and a group of developers, the library last summer became the centerpiece of a $1-billion downtown redevelopment project.

Under the plan, all of the library’s departments would be enlarged and moved into a new eight-floor addition, built on the east side of the existing library. Construction was scheduled to begin in January. The expansion, as well as improvements to the old library, would have cost $110 million.

As part of the agreement, the city approved the transfer of development rights to permit the construction of three high-rise office buildings nearby.

Tuesday’s fire was watched by thousands of downtown workers--many of them on lunch-hour breaks--who viewed it from windows, sidewalks and rooftops. Rubbernecking motorists hampered some of the 50 fire engines responding to the initial alarms, and downtown traffic remained snarled much of the afternoon and evening.

Postponed Deluge

As the first engines rolled to 5th and Hope streets, only a few wisps of smoke wafted skyward, and it appeared that the fire would soon be contained. Firefighters began by trying to battle their way into the heart of the blaze on foot--postponing the deluge of water that they knew could cause as much damage as the flames.

But as the minutes passed, the flames bore deeper into the core of the building, generating heat, smoke and steam that drove firefighters back and permitted the flames to spread virtually unchecked.

“We tried to get in there, but it was just too hot,” Assistant Fire Chief Don Anthony said during a brief break for a gasp of air. “That’s where some of the fellows got hurt.”

Of the 44 firefighters who suffered smoke inhalation and burns, 23 were taken to hospitals. Two suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. A bystander suffered minor injuries when she tripped over a fire hose.

‘Four Chimneys’

Firefighters attributed the difficulty of putting out the blaze to the library’s structural configuration.

The library is a three-story structure whose patrons use the center of the complex. The building’s four corners are devoted to “stacks”--collections of books or magazines that are off-limits to the public and are separated into seven tiers, accessible either by narrow metal stairs or a tiny elevator.

Because there are no solid floors between tiers, and because each quadrant contains such a high volume of paper, “what you have basically are four chimneys” if a fire breaks out, said Norman Pfeiffer, a New York architect who is designing the library expansion project.

Thus when the fire started somewhere between the fifth and seventh tiers of the southeast quadrant, it was free to spread vertically through the tiers of books in that quadrant--and largely free to spread horizontally across the passageways on each floor that connect the quadrants.

Flames Spread

The flames continued to spread, and at 1:45 p.m., the Fire Department began smashing out upper-floor windows and pouring in water from fire derricks outside the building. The water knocked down the fire, and by 3:30 p.m. the blaze was largely confined to the interior of the building but at the same time, the water drenched whatever remained of the books and documents on much of floor space below.

Inside the building, firefighters encountered the tangled wreckage of shelving that collapsed and blocked the narrow stairs and passageways within the stacks. Because they carried only enough oxygen to last 15 minutes or so in the smoldering interior of the building, firefighters rotated in and out in shifts.

Several had to be helped from the building, scalded by the blasts of steam generated when the water from their hoses was vaporized and hurled back at them by the intense walls of flame. “It’s like pulling the lid off an immense, boiling pot,” a department spokesman said.

Dozens of Flare-Ups

By 5 p.m., the blaze was declared under control, but firefighters said there were still dozens of minor flare-ups to snuff out, a process they said might last through this morning.

The potential danger of the library’s open-shaft quadrants had troubled city fire officials, and library employees had worried about the building’s fire safety for years.

“This was a building we have been very concerned about over time,” City Fire Chief Don Manning said.

The Fire Department cited the library in 1979, requiring that the public area be made more safe by the installation of smoke alarm-operated fire doors that would close off the center of the library from the stacks if a fire began. The library was in the process of installing the system, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Library officials said it would be days before they would be able to fully assess the damage to structure and its vast collections of books, magazines, newspapers, documents and recordings.

Gay said experts in book restoration had already been contacted in an effort to determine which of the damaged books can be salvaged. A spokesman for Mayor Tom Bradley, who cut short a gubernatorial campaign stop in San Diego to visit the scene, said the Getty Museum and the University of California, Berkeley, had offered special restoration equipment.

Times staff writers Roxane Arnold, Jerry Belcher, Scott Harris, Nieson Himmel and Patt Morrison contributed to this story.