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Blaze Spurs Call for Sprinkler Laws : Fire Crews Faced Host of Problems at First Interstate

Times Staff Writer

The battle to extinguish the fire that raged through five floors of Los Angeles’ tallest skyscraper was hampered by:

--The lack of a built-in sprinkler system, which fire officials said might have quenched the fire in the 62-story building within minutes.

--A lack of water pressure, due to the fact that the building’s pumping system was not operating.

--Malfuntioning valves that allowed the pressure to soar out of control once the pumps were started, causing fire hoses to burst.

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Nearly 300 firefighters--about 40% of the city’ on-duty force--struggled through walls of flame and showers of shattering glass to control the blaze Thursday morning on the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th floors of the downtown First Interstate Bank building.

One building employee was killed and 40 other building workers and firefighters were injured.

Los Angeles fire officials were unable to estimate monetary damages Thursday. Without elaborating, they withdrew an earlier official estimate of $450 million in damage and said no new figure would be available before today.

A bank official estimated that it could be 30 to 60 days before the scarred building can be reoccupied below the 21st floor.

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“Above that floor it will take about two weeks,” said Harold Meyerman, president of First Interstate Bank Ltd.

“We have five floors that sustained major fire damage; another five that have significant water damage and then probably have at least five that have significant smoke damage as well,” he said.

The man who died, Alexander John Handy, 24, a building maintenance engineer from Palmdale, pleaded for help over a hand-held radio before succumbing to the flames and smoke in an elevator that stalled on the 12th floor.

“I could hear him calling,” said Zora Imamovic, 38, a janitor in the building who carried one of the portable radio sets.

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“He was saying, ‘Car 33’s in flames! We are dying! . . . Please help!’ ”

In his last transmission, firefighters said, Handy shouted that “it’s getting hot up here” and warned others in the building to “get the hell off the floor.”

Doors Pried Open

His body was found when firefighters pried open the elevator doors at 4 a.m., less than two hours after the blaze was extinguished.

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Fire officials described the blaze--which generated temperatures estimated at nearly 2,000 degrees--as the worst high-rise fire in the city’s history in terms of damage and severity.

Smoke billowed hundreds of feet above the skyscraper as the flames exploded into the night Wednesday, obscuring the view for helicopter crews who braved fire-generated winds to pluck eight people to safety from the roof and drop firefighters and equipment there to combat the flames from above.

“Everything that was burnable burned down,” said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Steve Varney. “It was just metal, and that was red hot. . . . It looked like Dante’s Inferno.”

“Inside that building . . . it was like the inside of a boiler,” Fire Chief Donald Manning said. “The water would turn to steam. I wasn’t sure we could stop it at all.”

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Arson investigators from the Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms combed the charred debris for clues Thursday afternoon, but the cause of the blaze was not immediately determined.

One of the main problems in battling the fire was the lack of a sprinkler system. The building at 707 Wilshire Blvd. was constructed before a 1974 state law requiring such protection.

A 40-member crew was in the process of installing a $3.5-million sprinkler system when the fire broke out shortly after 10 p.m. Wednesday. Although the system was 90% completed, none of the sprinklers were working yet.

“If there had been a sprinkler system in that building, we wouldn’t be here,” Manning said.

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When firefighters arrived, they found that the building’s pumping system was not providing enough pressure to force water to the upper stories, according to Capt. Mike Bowers.

“For some reason, the system had been turned off,” Bowers said.

That may have been because of the work being done on the sprinkler system, he said. Normally those systems are on and are built to automatically kick on anytime pressure drops below an acceptable level, the captain added.

Valves Malfunction

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A building engineer finally showed up to restart the system and pressure quickly climbed. But then, valves designed to reduce pressure for use on lower floors malfunctioned and the super-pressurized water blew apart several fire hoses. At that point, firefighters began using a backup system from outside the building.

The blaze, which was visible for miles, attracted large crowds of spectators.

Police cordoned off streets surrounding the building to ease the movement of the large amount of fire equipment.

But the blocked streets caused enormous traffic jams during Thursday morning’s rush hour, forcing the temporary closure of downtown off-ramps from the Harbor Freeway.

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At the height of the blaze, a Fire Department helicopter spotted a man waving frantically from a 50th-floor window. Attempts to lower a rescuer by cable from a chopper proved unsuccessful. But two firefighters eventually were able to climb to the man on foot inside the building.

Firefighter Mike Meadows said that by the time they reached the man, he was overcome by smoke.

“He was behind a curtain, and all we could see was his legs,” Meadows said. “A few more minutes and he would have been gone.”

Meadows said he gave the man air from a tank of compressed air he carried on his back and he and a fellow firefighter took turns carrying him on their backs to the roof, where he was picked up by a helicopter.

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“By then, he was feeling a lot better,” Meadows said.

Two of the injured were found, disoriented, on the 37th floor shortly before dawn.

Both Hospitalized

The two, financial analyst Melinda Skaar and Stephen Oksa, were hospitalized in intensive-care units for treatment of smoke inhalation.

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In all, at least 17 people were hospitalized, officials said. Most were maintenance and janitorial workers. Three were firefighters.

Several of the janitors said the first indication of trouble was a crackling noise over ceiling loudspeakers. The warning came as a staccato, “The building is on fire! The building is on fire!”

Some never heard the warning over the sounds of their vacuum cleaners. Others, who spoke only Spanish, could not understand. Still others missed the message because the intercoms failed.

Maria Monterroso, 25, was one of those who could not make out the words.

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“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m pregnant, and I was worried about what would happen. I cried. I don’t remember that I prayed or not. But I cried.” Then Monterroso joined the many others who ignored the enclosed stairways mandated by the city for fire safety and--despite signs warning not to do so--used elevators to descend to safety. Authorities warn that elevators can stall in fire situations and often are among the first enclosures to fill with smoke.

Arminda Gonzales, 37, chose one of the building’s four stairways, but the farther she walked down, the thicker the smoke got.

“I thought, there is no way to escape,” she recalled. “I thought I was going to die.”

Gonzales turned back, climbing to the roof, where she said it was like “being in the center of a chimney--black, black smoke on every side.”

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She said the first helicopter that flew by continued on, despite her screams for help. But the second stopped, airlifting her and another woman to safety.

Another maintenance worker who used an elevator--and escaped unhurt--was Teresa Pugo, who said she realized something was wrong when she smelled smoke.

“I thought a coffee machine or a microwave oven was on fire,” she said. “But then I went near the stairs and I heard people screaming ‘Fire!’ ”

Fire Department spokesman Ed Reed said the high-rise blaze was “the worst kind to fight” because it was beyond the reach of ladders and the truck-mounted monitors used to spray water from the ground.

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He said the fire started in the southeast corner of the 12th floor, an area used by the bank for trading bonds and other securities. The flames spread rapidly, fueled primarily by wood, plastic, fabric and other combustibles used to furnish and decorate the offices.

Within minutes, the flames, licking upward through shattered windows, had spread to the four floors above.

Charred debris and shards of glass rained down on the streets, severing a number of hoses and posing an added threat to the firefighters in staging areas on the ground. At least one car, parked at the curb, was set ablaze by falling embers.

Phalanx of Equipment

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The Fire Department dispatched so many engine companies to the fire that they formed a solid phalanx on Hope Street, two blocks long and four lanes wide. A dozen ambulances lined up on nearby Grand Avenue to transport the injured to hospitals.

The Fire Department launched a two-pronged attack on the blaze, using firefighters equipped with compressed-air bottles. While some of the firefighters made the arduous climb from below, others, dropped by helicopter, descended from the roof.

The fight to suppress the blaze swung back and forth, with firefighters advancing repeatedly on the flames, only to be driven back again and again by the intense heat.

“For a while it looked as though we had really lost it,” firefighter Allen Skier said later. “Suddenly, there was smoke all over, on all sides of us, and my air was gone. For 10 minutes there, it looked pretty rough.”

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But Skier and the others got more air and regrouped. And finally, the command radio crackled a welcome report:

“Knockdown at zero two one nine (a.m.).”

By that time, an estimated 1,500 people had gathered to watch the spectacle, and dozens of police officers were deployed to keep the crowd behind hastily drawn lines of yellow ribbon.

One officer, who would not give his name, said that after hundreds of spectators streamed into the streets from downtown restaurants and hotels, there appeared a huge second wave of people “who drove in from all points of the city to see this thing.”

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“These people are hearing it on the radio and coming in from everywhere--Central, the Valley, you name it,” he said.

A festive atmosphere reigned as boys on bicycles and people in wheelchairs rolled up to watch the drama.

Frank Carranza, 38, said he drove up from South Los Angeles “because they said on the news it was going to be history. I jumped into my car and came right down. It’s not exactly for fun, but I’ll be able to tell my kids I saw it.”

Heard It on Radio

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Jonathan Adler said he was on his way to a downtown-area post office when he heard about the fire on the radio and stopped to watch.

“This is something not to be missed,” he said. “There is a very strong attraction . . . something very primal about, because it’s such a huge high-rise. It’s civilization against nature, and that’s a real drama.”

Bertone Terronez said he and some friends were heading for a downtown nightclub.

“My friend said, ‘Look, it’s the ‘Towering Inferno,’ ” Terronez said, referring to the 1974 movie about a skyscraper fire in San Francisco.

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“That’s my bank,” Terronez said. “My money is burning right now.”

A bank representative said Thursday morning that the offices destroyed in the fire contain the firm’s trading, advertising and public relations departments. He said the damage would total millions of dollars.

Late in the afternoon, fire officials placed the damage to the building and contents at $450 million.

The bank occupies 63% of the floor space in the building, with the remainder leased to other tenants. First Interstate, which owns the structure in partnership with Equitable Life Insurance Co., has been seeking a buyer for its share as part of a multibillion-dollar restructuring program.

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5,500 Idled

First Interstate told the 5,500 people who normally work in the building to stay home on Thursday.

Times staff writers Mark Arax, Roxane Arnold, Laurie Becklund, Edward J. Boyer, Stephanie Chavez, Nieson Himmel, T.W. McGarry, Frederick M. Muir, Myrna Oliver, George Ramos, Jill Stewart, Robert W. Stewart and Boris Yaro contributed to this report.

ROOFTOP DRAMA

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Six fire and police helicopters rescued eight people from the roof between 11 p.m. and midnight. The helicopters also dropped a dozen firefighters who climbed down some 40 floors to battle the fire from above.

. . . THEN ANOTHER

On the 37th floor, two bank employees, trapped for more than five hours by the intense heat and smoke, were rescued at 4:00 a.m. The two were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

PATH OF DESTRUCTION

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Fire knocked down at 2:19 a.m. after gutting one-third of the 16th floor and destroying the four floors below. Offices destroyed housed advertising and public relations for the bank.

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

Fire broke out at 10:37 p.m. in the southeast corner of the 12th floor, used as a trading floor for bonds and other securities. The flames spread rapidly, fueled by interior furnishings. Intense heat, reaching 2,000 degrees, forced firefighters to frequently turn back. Water pressure problems also hampered efforts.

HOW THE FIRE SPREAD

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Within minutes, flames spread to the 16th floor. Flames sped through utility shafts and leaped from floor to floor through shattered windows outside. Burning debris and shattered glass rained down on firefighters, severing some hoses. Debris set one parked car aflame.

Firefighters launched a two-pronged attack from inside the building--teams climbed up to the 14th floor, and other teams climbed down from the roof. In all, nearly 300 firefighers battled the blaze.

A FINAL PLEA

At 4:15 a.m., firefighters found the body of Alexander Handy, 24, a maintenance worker trapped in a freight elevator on the 12th floor. A janitor heard his radioed calls for help: “Car 33’s in flames! . . . Please help!”

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Research by GEORGE RAMOS


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