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5 Hours in Smoky Office : 2 Trapped on 37th Floor Improvise to Survive Fire

Times Staff Writer

For five hours they were trapped in their office on the 37th floor, two young colleagues fighting alone for their lives with the only survival skill they had ever studied: the analytic reasoning they had learned in business school.

Together, they scrounged around the office for ways to keep themselves alive in the dense, deadly smoke--rationing themselves breaths of clean air from cabinets, converting large plastic water bottles into air filters and, in the end, hurling file cabinets in a vain attempt to break the windows.

“But after all we did, I finally got to the point about 3 a.m. when I realized, ‘This is it, I’m going to die,’ ” said Melinda Skaar from her bed in the intensive-care unit of Good Samaritan Hospital, where she is recovering from smoke inhalation.

“I thought, ‘Sunday’s my birthday, and I’m not ever going to be there to turn 29.’ ”

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But Skaar, a financial analyst with First Interstate Bank, and her colleague, Stephen Oksas, 31, an assistant vice president, kept themselves alive long enough to be rescued.

They were the last victims to emerge Thursday from the high rise. But when rescuers found them at about 4 a.m., both had collapsed on the floor. Oksas, more severely overcome by the smoke than Skaar, was taken down in an emergency freight elevator, Skaar said. She was carried down 37 floors on a makeshift stretcher fashioned from a torn office curtain by paramedics and firefighters.

Oksas was listed in stable condition at Queen of Angels Hospital. He slept most of the day and, through a nurse, declined to be interviewed.

Never Saw Flames

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A total of 40 people were injured in the blaze, whose flames Skaar and Oksas never even saw.

Skaar, a native of Minnesota and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, came to Los Angeles last year and has worked at the bank only nine months. She had stayed late to use some computers to compile data for a report she was preparing for First Interstate Bank’s board of directors.

Oksas is a bachelor from Chicago who often worked late. Skaar was not sure what kept him Wednesday. They knew each other as well as office workers usually do.

She was putting away her papers to go home about 10:45 p.m. and happened to walk past the receptionist’s desk when she heard the telephone ringing and decided to pick it up.

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“There’s a fire!” the voice of a security guard told her. “Get out of there!”

She called over to Oksas, and at first they were inclined to think it was nothing. After all, she thought, they had survived the Oct. 1 earthquake.

Smoke Billowed In

The two went out into the corridor, and a cloud of black smoke billowed in. They retreated to the office, found an interior room where the air seemed purer and she put the jacket of her black suit under the door to keep the smoke out.

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But smoke began flowing into the whole office from above. The ceiling was open because of some kind of construction. Suddenly, Skaar remembered that a fire sprinkler system was just being installed.

There was a moment then, Skaar said, when she looked at Oksas and found herself sizing up his skills for the job ahead. She was lucky, she thought, that she had found herself here with someone who would not be hysterical, someone who was level-headed. She believed he thought the same about her.

“In business classes you do play these survival games, and they teach you that you make better decisions working together than if each person works alone,” Skaar said.

“We talked about that a little. And that’s sort of what we did. We discussed each of our options. And every time a new set of circumstances arose, we reassessed our options.”

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Rejected Elevators

First, they called the security guard downstairs to tell him they appeared to be trapped. They found out that the fire had gone as high as the 16th floor. They had both heard that elevators closed during such fires and rejected trying them. (The only fatality in the fire was a man who died in an elevator.)

They discussed trying the stairs. But a quick check showed the stairwells were like chimneys of smoke. To survive, they would have to run down 37 floors through the fire or climb up 36 floors through unbreathable smoke to the roof.

They called back the security guard as the smoke in their office grew denser.

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“Should we try to break the windows or will that draw the fire this way?” Skaar said Oksas asked.

The guard didn’t know, she said. They asked for a firefighter’s advice, but they couldn’t get one to the phone.

A few calls later, the line went dead.

Could See Helicopters

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The sound of sirens began to fill the air. And they could see helicopters circling high overhead, seemingly oblivious to their position in the middle of the building.

“Then we started looking around, and we found a little room with a Xerox in it I’d never been in before,” Skaar said. “It seemed to have clean air.”

They stayed there, low to the floor. But the waiting was terrible. And the air began to blacken.

“We found these Sparkletts water bottles in there and cut holes in the bottom,” she said. “Then we put paper towels over the holes to filter the air and we breathed through those.”

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More desperate as the air grew scarcer, the two went back into the main office. Oksas tried to hurl a table through the window. It just bounced back. Then, furiously, they tried emptying file cabinets, and together they tried hurling the cabinets against the windows.

‘Spare the Air’

“They just bounced back,” she said. “Everything just bounced back.”

She took scissors from the drawer and tried prying off the weatherstripping. A hair-fine draft of sweet air came through. But it wasn’t enough to breathe.

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Unsuccessful and beaten, they retreated to the copying room. They opened cupboard doors to breathe what was left of the oxygen.

“Spare the air,” they told each other.

Sometime about 3 a.m., she heard a helicopter hovering lower and went outside into the smoke, leaving Oksas in the small room.

‘Definitely to Die’

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“I thought, I had to wave to them, to let them know we were still alive,” she said.

She saw her reflection in unbroken glass: a tall, thin young woman with a black face and black hands and a white blouse turned black.

The helicopter had to see her, she thought. But there was no way the people in it would ever reach her.

“I thought, I’m definitely to die in this,” she said, breaking for the first time during the interview into sobs. “I thought about all the things that would go unfinished in my life. How people would find us, here, on the floor.

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“I thought about what would happen to my boyfriend, Dave, how we’d been together for eight years and how was he going to pay the mortgage when he was still in school. I thought about my parents, about my family. . . . “

And, to her amazement, she thought about the report for the board of directors that she had been working on for months, the report that had kept her there late that night.

‘You Can Do Things’

“And I thought, ‘That report will die with me.’ ”

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Once more, she made her way back to the Xerox room to find clean air, or what was left of it. But her muscles didn’t seem to work. She stumbled all the way and finally found the door but couldn’t push it open. Oksas had collapsed on the other side. Her last recourse seemed to be gone.

“Then I learned something,” she said. “I learned that you can do things you have to do alone if there is no one else to help.”

On wooden legs, she found her way back to the fine draft of air by the window, and fell to the floor.

“All I remember is seeing these bodies a few minutes later,” she said. “Strong bodies that weren’t like ours, bodies that could walk and breathe and had equipment with them and would rescue us.”

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