‘Towering Inferno’: a Bit of Art Too Often Imitated by Life and Death

<i> Stirling Silliphant, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, wrote the screenplay for "The Towering Inferno."</i>

When I spotted the front page of the Los Angeles Times last Thursday, I thought, How extraordinary! They’re re-releasing “The Towering Inferno,” and some public-relations whiz has managed to get us onto Page 1.

Unhappily, I was looking at Thomas Kelsey’s memorable photo of the First Interstate Bank building in downtown Los Angeles, a devilish mouth of fire eating its way upward from the 12th floor.

Once more life was imitating art, if I may be permitted that categorization of a highly successful commercial film. The blessed difference in this case between life and art is that only a few dozen people were working that night in the First Interstate building. In our movie, black-tie celebrators packed the “world’s tallest building” for opening-night ceremonies.

Thank God that scenario did not play out last week in downtown Los Angeles!


It all came back to me then--the genesis of the film “The Towering Inferno.” Irwin Allen, the producer and a magician at creating special effects, had bought the film rights to two novels dealing with high-rise fires. In the inexplicable way of such things, a writer in New York had produced a novel titled “The Tower” at the same time two writers in San Francisco published their novel, “The Glass Inferno.” Allen brought me aboard to create a film script from both books--a film that he called “The Towering Inferno.” And I went off to do my research.

My first consultant was a fire marshal in San Francisco. We met for lunch in a basement restaurant, and he chose a table directly under a ceiling sprinkler. I was amused--until he told me that he never slept or ate above the third floor. The man is definitely a weirdo, I told myself, until as the interview progressed he began to educate me about fires and death by smoke inhalation and by toxic fumes from burning designer furniture. He acquainted me with the “enemy"--some property owners, some builders, some architects-- some , not all --but a powerful opposition lobby against the proposals advanced by life-safety exponents.

I then did a six-city survey of high-rise buildings in America. I discovered that the varying building codes produced varying levels of safety.

A glaring example of this shortfall is our own City Hall; in Los Angeles, sprinklers were not required in newly built high-rises before 1974.

And I learned that each building has its own procedure for fire drills and evacuation.

I met with one security officer of a downtown Los Angeles building (without sprinklers) who assured me that they had no problem should they be hit with a fire. All people below the 20th floor would simply proceed down the staircases to the street. All those above that floor would proceed up the staircases to the roof, where they would be handily airlifted to safety by obliging choppers.

A couple of questions, OK? Suppose the fire strikes around, say, 3 p.m. One executive, paunchy, just back from a three-martini lunch, has to walk from the 21st floor to the roof. What if he has a heart attack en route? What if people around him panic? Or suppose he does make it up 20 floors--what if we just happen to be into a Santa Ana wind condition and the choppers can’t land?

It would never happen, I was told.


So we made our movie, and in my script I came down hard and unremittingly on builder apathy and subcontractor shortcuts--in short, I opted for human safety rather than for maximum profits to the builders and developers.

When the film was released, we were assailed by cries from all the “injured” builders and architects. The film was labeled “ridiculous” and “exaggerated” by spokesmen of the building industries.

But by the millions the public believed us, and so did the firefighters. Allen began to receive awards and citations and honorary helmets from fire marshals from coast to coast. And some major American cities passed legislation to enforce stricter fire codes in high-rise buildings.

We had no idea how ominous a presage our film would be. Shortly after its release, high-rise fires began killing people all over the world--in Sao Paulo, in New York--and the critics were silenced.


But we felt no sense of triumph or vindication.

For we knew that in one metropolis after another death traps reach to the sky and each day countless numbers of people ascend to their cubicles high above the streets, blindly putting their faith in the sleek beauty of towering glass and aluminum.

It’s what I had “Fire Chief” Steve McQueen say to “architect” Paul Newman at the end of “The Towering Inferno”: “As long as you guys keep building ‘em higher and higher without listening to us first, I’ll just keep on bringing out the body bags.”

“I’m listening,” Newman answered.


I hope real-life people are listening, too.

These days when I travel I never sleep above the third floor, and I take my meals either at ground level or one flight down--directly under a fire sprinkler.