The 62-Story Question: Why? : Burned High-Rise Closed by City for Indefinite Period

Times Staff Writer

City officials Friday ordered the fire-ravaged First Interstate Bank building closed indefinitely and suggested that it may be “quite some time” before the 62-story tower is reopened.

The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety issued the order because smoke alarms, exit lighting and other safety systems in the high-rise were knocked out by the devastating Wednesday night blaze, said Russell E. Lane, the city’s chief building inspector.

The fire caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, killed a building engineer who was trapped in an elevator and injured 40 custodial workers and firefighters.


Lane said his department will not allow repair work on the 858-foot tower, the city’s tallest, to begin until the building’s steel superstructure is extensively tested to ensure that it was not weakened by the fire’s intense heat.

‘Quite Some Time’

“In terms of doing business in this building, I would say it would be quite some time,” Lane said.

While about 75 firefighters knocked loose glass and charred debris from the building’s five burned-out floors to sidewalks along 6th and Hope streets, teams of arson investigators from the Los Angeles Fire Department and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms continued the task of trying to determine how the fire began. The cause of the fire has still not been determined.

Investigators cordoned off a 2,400-square-foot section in the southeast corner of the building’s 12th floor, where they believe the blaze started sometime before 10:37 p.m. Wednesday, and began sifting through two feet of debris in search of clues.

The fire’s fierce heat, believed to have reached 2,000 degrees or more, its rapid progress and its 3 1/2-hour duration may thwart their efforts, said Battalion Chief Gary R. Bowie, head of the Fire Department’s arson investigation bureau.

Answers Sought

While some investigators sought answers in the ashes, others questioned bank employees about the possibility that the sale Wednesday of First Interstate Bancorp’s government bond-trading subsidiary may have prompted a disgruntled worker to set the blaze.

The sale is expected to result in the net loss of 100 jobs. Bond traders employed by First Interstate Capital Markets, the subsidiary that was sold, worked on the floor where the fire apparently began.

However, arson investigator Bowie said initial interviews indicated that employees generally were not upset about the sale.

“They told us everyone was happy,” he said.

First Interstate’s chief spokesman, Simon Barker-Benfield, said bank executives do not believe that the sale played a role in the fire.

The decision to sell the securities unit as part of a general restructuring was disclosed to employees and the public more than six months ago, he said. About 50 of the 100 employees in the unit had already left to take other jobs, and the remaining 50 will be hired by the buyer, Printon, Kane & Co. of Short Hills, N.J.

“I’m not telling you that somebody didn’t set the fire,” Barker-Benfield said. “That’s for the arson people to determine. But it’s not like there were a lot of long faces around there in the securities unit.”

Manages Property

The bank owns the high-rise in a joint venture with the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States. An Equitable subsidiary manages the property.

Inspector Ed Reed, a Fire Department spokesman, said officials now believe that a damage estimate of $450 million released by the department Thursday was “really quite high” and will be considerably reduced, perhaps by more than 50%.

“I think that was just an offhand comment made by people at the scene who were just making their own estimate,” Reed said. “It’s going to take some time to really figure out what all was lost in there and what the damages are to the building itself.”

He said he did not know when the revised estimate would be announced.

Officials of the South Coast Air Quality Management District dispatched an inspector to the the fire scene Friday to determine whether asbestos had been released into the air as a result of the blaze.

Steel Beams

The tower, which opened in October, 1973, was constructed at a time when manufacturers of fire retardants used to coat steel beams and pipes were phasing out the use of the cancer-causing compound in their products. Officials Friday were unable to say whether any of the material that burned in the bank building contained asbestos.

However, the Asbestos Workers Union in Los Angeles expressed concerns that fire investigators combing the building might be exposing themselves to the deadly particles.

A union spokesman said that a high-rise built in the early 1970s almost certainly would have contained the substance. He said investigators should be taking air samples and, if necessary, using respirators and plastic sheeting to keep the material from affecting workers or members of the public who might be exposed if it blew down from the fire scene.

The eight city arson investigators and more than two dozen federal agents were not wearing respirators Thursday and Friday during their work at the scene. Battalion Chief Dean Cathey, a city fire spokesman, said he was unaware whether investigators sampled the air or building materials at the scene to look for asbestos. Such sampling is required under state health-safety regulations, said Bob Garcia, Cal/OSHA program manager in San Francisco.

Harold Meyerman, president of First Interstate Bank Ltd., had said Thursday that he expected that tenants above the 16th floor would be able to return to their offices in about two weeks and that tenants on floors below the fire might be back in business within 30 to 60 days.

But Lane appeared to raise questions about that estimate Friday.

A two-hour visual inspection of the building conducted by city workers Thursday turned up no signs of weakness in the tower’s steel superstructure, but Lane said scientific tests must be made before repair work can begin.

That work, to be conducted by Smith-Emery Co., a Los Angles engineering firm, began in earnest Friday, company officials said. They could not estimate how long the work would take.

“The building will be maintained vacant. . . . We will be reviewing any tests, plans or reports involving the building, and we will issue (work) permits based on those plans and tests,” Lane said. “And of course, we will inspect the building.

Times staff writers Mathis Chazanov, David Ferrell, Douglas Frantz, John Kendall, George Ramos, Ronald L. Soble and Boris Yaro contributed to this story.