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First Interstate Staff Struggles to Cope After Fire : Displaced From Familiar Surroundings, Employees Find Work Rhythm Upset

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Jerry L. Jordan remembered stepping off the elevator onto the 14th floor of the First Interstate Bank Building and staring into charred ruins, trying to decide which direction led to his office.

“You don’t know which way to turn because all the landmarks are gone,” said Jordan, the banking company’s chief economist. “You’ve seen all the pictures and the stuff on the news. But there is still something about the undeniability of it all once you go up there.”

Hundreds of other bank employees have been allowed into their offices in recent days to retrieve sooty documents and search for personal mementos--a water-soaked Rolodex or a stained picture of their children.

Visits are limited to 15 minutes, and employees are escorted by security guards because of city safety concerns. For many, particularly those whose offices were on the floors that sustained the heaviest damage, the trips are emotional and difficult. But they also can be pleasantly surprising.

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A rumor had passed among bank employees that an office miraculously remained intact on the 12th floor, the most ravaged section of the building and the site of the fire’s still-unidentified origin. The rumor became a rallying point for employees scattered in temporary quarters around Los Angeles.

Cole H. Emerson, one of the bank’s top emergency response officials, checked it out a few days after the May 4 fire.

Only Light Damage

“People are very emotionally attached to their work areas, and I wanted to be absolutely accurate about whether there was something left,” Emerson said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

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In an area where temperatures had reached 2,000 degrees, an antique standing desk was intact, covered by ceiling tiles; only its finish was blistered. Family pictures sat unscathed on a nearby desk alongside a melted telephone. A case containing eyeglasses was charred black, but the glasses were undamaged. A framed lithograph by artist Richard Kipniss hung askew on a wall, its pastoral landscape obscured by soot but unburned.

The office belonged to William Doomey, head of trading operations for the Los Angeles-based banking company, and the survival of the Kipniss lithograph touched him deeply. It had been a gift from his staff a year earlier when he was promoted to executive vice president.

“Amazing,” said Doomey as he held the lithograph in his temporary office a few blocks away. “Simply amazing.”

Stories abound of personal items that somehow survived on even the worst floors--an awards plaque in a government affairs manager’s office on 15, the transcript of congressional testimony by Jordan on 14, a trader’s singed business card atop a melted desk on 12.

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Each new find created a buoyance among the employees and fed the adrenalin-powered energy that helped the $51-billion banking company to resume its most critical businesses in the hours and days after the fire.

About 900 telephones were installed the day after the fire at makeshift offices and an internal phone book was produced the next day. A system was created within two days for distributing the 124,000 pieces of mail that flood the headquarters daily, and new quarters were found for 1,500 key employees.

Cramped New Quarters

Bank officials say that essential businesses, the ones that could lose millions of dollars a day if they were shut down, were running within hours of the fire and that overall operations are going smoothly. A new branch was even opened half a block from the headquarters building within four days of the fire.

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But the early camaraderie has begun to wear off. Many employees are doubled up in offices; employees who used 600,000 square feet in the 62-story tower at 707 Wilshire Blvd. are jammed into two smaller First Interstate buildings and 150,000 square feet of newly leased space.

Even the absence of simple things, such as a Rolodex filled with telephone numbers and addresses collected over the years or a familiar calculator, has taken a toll on morale and productivity.

“You don’t have the things you need right at your fingertips,” said a secretary in the temporary offices created for the bank executives on the 10th floor of the Arco Tower. “The public was very understanding, but now they call and don’t understand that there are still problems.”

Two women standing in the Arco Tower offices were staring out a window at the charred First Interstate building the other day. One said there had been a report of smoke coming from the 22nd floor, and the other said, “Oh no. When is it going to stop?”

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It was another of several false alarms or small electrical fires connected with the clean-up, but the incident captured the uncertainty and frustrations cropping up even at the top.

Concern Over Morale

Joseph J. Pinola, chairman and chief executive of the nation’s ninth-largest banking company, can no longer push a button on his telephone to reach key executives, and his favorite calculator is missing. Such little irritations have a cumulative effect that can damage productivity and sap morale if they go on for long.

“The people who work for this bank have kept up exceedingly well, and it probably has a lot to do with the feeling that they were getting us out of trouble,” Pinola said. “But you have to wonder when that morale is going to go down because they aren’t in their comfortable space. The real answer lies in when we get back into the building.”

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But no one has that answer yet. The results of critical tests on the building’s structure are not in, and the mop-up is continuing. While optimistic officials hope to return within eight weeks, other estimates are for far longer and no one can identify a precise date.

The uncertainty led to the creation of a betting pool among bank employees; tossing in a dollar buys a move-in date and the winning date takes the money. Picks range from such hopeful times as July 12 to well beyond.

For some, the switch to temporary quarters has brought unexpected benefits. Bill Doomey’s trading operation is in a first-floor room a few blocks from downtown. Cables snake across the floor or dangle from the ceiling like a giant spider web. But the traders have been allowed to switch from suits and dresses to more casual clothes.

“We want them to be as comfortable as possible,” Doomey said.

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That benefit may not last, but another will. The cramped quarters forced Doomey to put the clerks who process customer orders in the same room as the traders, and he said the result has been an increase in efficiency. Floor plans being drawn up for new quarters place the clerks adjacent to the trading desks.

Asking About Exits

Doomey and some of the traders have been inspecting possible locations for a new permanent trading operation outside the headquarters building, where the space never suited their needs anyway.

As they examine new sites, Doomey has found that his traders exhibit an interesting sensitivity to the fact that their operations were on the 12th floor, where the fire started.

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“Every place we go into, the traders ask about fire exits and look at the ceiling,” he said. “They were delighted when we looked at space on the fourth floor of a building.”

A sprinkler system was being installed in the First Interstate building when the fire broke out, and fire officials have said sprinklers might have contained the blaze.

“When will the L.A. headquarters sprinkler system be completed?” an employee wrote to a bank newsletter that provides post-fire news. “I don’t think I’ll feel safe in the building until I know it’s done.”

The response: Employees and tenants will not be allowed back into the building permanently until its structural integrity is assured and a sprinkler system is operational.

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The emotional aftermath has shown up in other ways. One employee was playing tennis with his father when a line call sent him storming off the court in a rage; another said he cannot seem to stay away from work on weekends for reasons he cannot fathom. The bank hired a psychologist to conduct group sessions and counsel individual employees.

But most operations have returned to normal, as one bank executive discovered last week when he received a notice from the bank’s library. The library wanted him to return a February issue of Fortune magazine that had been on his desk the day of the fire.


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