A Good Man in a Tight Spot : On April 14, Edmund J. Pistey organized the disaster drill at First Interstate Bank. Three weeks later, fire struck--and the retired FBI agent was in command for the company during a major crisis.

Times Staff Writer

Eades Hogue, who used to prosecute mobsters for the Justice Department, was talking Friday about the former FBI agent who now heads security for First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles.

"If you were to have a shoot-out, Ed Pistey would be one of the guys I would probably pick for my side," said Hogue, now a private attorney in New Orleans. "He never gets excited about anything."

That is pretty much how top executives at First Interstate feel about Pistey, too.

When fire erupted at the bank's 62-story headquarters downtown Wednesday night, Pistey was the first person to arrive at the emergency command center a few blocks away. He spent the rest of the night and much of Thursday supervising 20 people gathering critical information about the disaster and its potential effect on bank business.

"My experience in law enforcement had been that the initial time in reacting to a disaster can be pretty chaotic, and it takes awhile for things to stabilize," said a weary Pistey on Friday afternoon. "Frankly, it surprised me that we had so little chaos and that these people who don't normally deal with disasters adapted so well."

During 25 years in the FBI, Edmund J. Pistey dealt with plenty of disasters, from airplane hijackings and kidnapings to bank robberies. He worked on a squad tracking top mob bosses in New York in the 1970s, and he was in charge of the massive planning to counter a possible terrorist attack on the 1986 Super Bowl in New Orleans.

The jazz capital was Pistey's last posting for the FBI, a choice that meshed with his fondness for playing the clarinet.

Pistey, 52, graduated from the University of Notre Dame and put himself through law school at Fordham University in New York City by playing the clarinet in the NBC orchestra. He is married and has six children.

Before retiring and going to work as head of security for First Interstate two years ago, Pistey was special agent in charge of the office in New Orleans.

Hogue was chief of the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force in New Orleans during Pistey's tenure and he remembers him as "pure bureau, like they stamped him out of a mold with their best people."

Relations between prosecutors and FBI agents can sometimes be prickly because of interagency rivalries and differing points of view. But Hogue said he always found Pistey straightforward and fair.

"I never heard him raise his voice and he is good in dealing with prosecutors," he said.

A top FBI agent, who worked with Pistey in New Orleans but did not want his name used, had similar feelings, saying: "He was very popular and he had a good ability for getting people to perform and motivating them. Crisis management is a routine part of training for executives in the bureau."

That training came in handy soon after Pistey started work at First Interstate.

About two years ago, bank executives were discussing the company's strengths and weaknesses at a strategy session. One of the vulnerabilities that emerged was the absence of a cohesive plan for dealing with a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or fire.

Six months later, after getting the proper approvals and allocating $1.5 million to the project, the bank embarked on creating a detailed disaster-response plan. Pistey played a key role in the task.

On April 14, he supervised the first full-scale test of the plan for employees in the bank's three high-rises in the downtown area.

An important part of the test was staffing the emergency command center two stories below ground less than a mile from the headquarters building. Designated people from each of the bank's key departments rushed to the center and went through the trial.

Similar to Hijacking

Last Wednesday night, the plan went into effect for real.

"This was very similar to a law enforcement-type of disaster, such as an airplane hijacking," Pistey said. "It called for a lot of interaction by a lot of different units and people with different expertise. Conceptually, I'd say they are almost identical."

But Pistey was dealing with lawyers and computer experts and office workers, not trained FBI agents and police. So his strong supervision was essential.

The command center team was responsible for tracking the fire's progress and learning exactly what parts of the bank's operation had been most damaged. Pistey funneled the information to senior executives so they would have the most accurate and up-to-date data on which to base their decisions.

"I can assure you that if we had a policy issue that could impact on business, that kind of thing was decided at the appropriate senior executive level," Pistey said.

That, too, is pure bureau.

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