Army of 1,100 to Begin Cleanup at First Interstate

Times Staff Writer

More than 1,100 workers are set to descend upon the First Interstate Bank building Monday as a multimillion-dollar cleanup effort begins in the aftermath of the May 4 fire that destroyed 4 1/2 floors of the 62-story tower in downtown Los Angeles.

After flying in specially trained technicians to salvage electronic equipment and chemists to eradicate the smoke odor, Blackmon-Mooring-Steamatic Catastrophe Inc., a Texas-based company specializing in mop-ups of major fires, expects to complete the restoration in six weeks. Spokesman for Equitable Realty, which manages the building, said "multimillion-dollar" contracts are still being drawn up and the estimated cost of the cleanup will not be available until Monday.

BMS President Kirk Blackmon said the cleanup process for the bank building involves more than simply shoveling mounds of debris out the windows. Workers will scrub ventilation ducts, disassemble desks to remove soot and clean computer floppy disks with vacuums and cotton swabs.

The fire destroyed the 12th through 15th floors and portions of the 16th, where it was finally stopped by battalions of firefighters.

Although the tower is one of the tallest BMS has worked on, "it's the kind of building that can be worked on quickly," Blackmon said. "There really isn't anything unique here. It's just an office building fire."

The catastrophe cleanup company, one of only a handful in the country, also restored the Las Vegas Hilton when a massive 1981 fire killed eight people and gutted major portions of the country's largest hotel, and the San Francisco headquarters of Del Monte Corp. after an underground transformer burned in 1983, filling the 28-story building with toxic fumes.

As part of First Interstate's contingency disaster plan, BMS officials were called only minutes after the blaze was extinguished. Blackmon and three others were at the building by 4 p.m. the next day to assess the damage.

Teams of 20 people from BMS' Ft. Worth headquarters flew in the following day to assess the damage and begin emergency salvage of the hundreds of personal computers and other pieces of electronic equipment extremely vulnerable to corrosion from the layer of soot and ash that covers nearly all floors of the building.

Blackmon said the nearly 120 BMS employees now assembled have almost completed the "gear-up" stage and hiring is under way for crews that are set to start working around the clock on Monday.

Workers Lined Up

Outside the bank building, scores of men in search of jobs starting at about $5 an hour waited Friday for interviews that will continue through the weekend. Blackmon said he looks for employees who can work quickly but meticulously at any time of the day.

Each new employee will be trained to do a specific task, whether shoveling ash or salvaging computers. Workers will then be assigned to crews of five to 10 and will work in three zones: above, below and at the fire level.

In the most heavily damaged areas--floors 12 to 15--Blackmon said there is nothing left to clean. An outside elevator will be rigged to haul away the mountains of debris and ash that were once desks and walls. What heating and ventilation fixtures remain will be removed and taken to a dump.

Computer Service

Above the fire zone and on part of the 16th floor, computers will be disassembled and workers will use cotton swabs and special solvents to brush away corrosive ash from circuit boards. Others will disassemble desks, poking into crevices with swabs to remove soot, and still more workers will use BMS' steam equipment to wash cloth furniture, drapery and carpets.

To remove the noxious smell, acoustic ceiling tiles will be replaced, all surfaces will be scrubbed, and air ducts will be opened and vacuumed. In addition, all surfaces will be treated and sealed with deodorizing chemicals.

Much the same procedure will be used below fire level.

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