Open Fire Door Blamed in First Interstate Death

Times Staff Writer

The operating engineer who died in the First Interstate Bank fire might have survived if a fire door on the 12th floor had not been propped open by bags of trash, in apparent violation of safety codes, city officials said Friday.

"If that fire door had shut, things might have been different," said Chief Gary Bowie of the Los Angeles Fire Department's arson investigation section. "If the door had been shut, there is a probability that he may have survived."

Alexander Handy, 24, died when he went up to check reports of fire alarms on the 12th floor on the night of May 4. Members of a night janitorial crew heard his screams for help over a walkie-talkie after the elevator doors opened onto the floor and flames apparently engulfed him.

Some details of the fire have not been made public because the Los Angeles County district attorney's office has said it is investigating the possibility of filing involuntary manslaughter charges in Handy's death. The target--or targets--of the investigation is not clear. The Fire Department has said only that "human error," not elevator malfunction, led to Handy's death.

According to fire records, the freight elevator that took Handy took to the 12th floor opened onto a 10-feet-by-10-feet fire-safe elevator vestibule that was designed to keep fire out for at least an hour. A fire door opposite the elevator was equipped with a "fail-safe" system that releases the door to swing shut if it is open when a fire breaks out.

Asked why there were apparently flames at the elevator door when Handy was sent up to check on fire alarms shortly after the fire began, officials said the fire door had been propped open, and the vestibule contained trash--"an awful lot of trash," one official said--that was apparently being removed by a night janitorial crew. There was also trash inside the elevator Handy took to the 12th floor, officials said.

"When I went in the next day (after the fire) . . . the door was held in the open position, charred, (and) there were plastic trash bags lying there on the floor," said Russell Lane, chief city building inspector. "We looked on other floors that were not damaged, and it was a typical situation there, too."

When asked if Handy would have survived if the vestibule had been clear, Lane said: "My professional opinion is that if that door had been closed, that (vestibule) would have been a safe haven."

One fire official close to the investigation who asked not to be named said one of the most tragic aspects of Handy's death was the timing of his arrival on the 12th floor, where the fire began in an elaborate computer and communications center.

Alarms began going off in the building starting at 10:30 p.m., but were repeatedly shut off by personnel who suspected they were false. Handy was sent up to check out the situation about 10:37 p.m.

"We can only surmise what happened from what we saw after the fire," the fire official said. "There was an awful lot of trash in the vestibule, but mostly it was only burned on the surface, there were no deep chars. Usually that means material is heated to ignition temperature and there is a flash fire."

That fire could have lasted as little as 15 seconds, he said. It was during that short period, he said, that Handy's elevator may have opened, bringing with it a fresh supply of oxygen and yet more trash as fuel.

Fire Consumed Clues

"If he'd have waited just a little while longer, the intense heat would have warped the outer doors (of the elevator) and they wouldn't have opened," the fire official said. "If he'd come a little later, the flash fire might have been over. . . . His timing was just wrong."

Bowie, who declined to discuss the question of trash in the elevator vestibule, said it was impossible to determine just how Handy died because the fire continued to burn on the 12th floor long after Handy's death, damaging clues that might have provided a clearer picture.

The last person to see Handy alive was a janitor emptying trash in the basement of the building when Handy took the elevator. He could not be reached for comment.

But Cecile Richards of the Service Employees International Union Local 399, which represents the workers, said, "I had not heard that this had happened. This was an experienced crew that knew the rules about propping open fire doors. My impression was everybody knew this was not to be done."

Chief Kenneth Johnson, who oversees commercial and industrial building safety for the Fire Department, said First Interstate building managers had received a citation in September, 1987, for storing items in the freight elevator vestibule on another floor, and that an inspector had found three other fire doors blocked in the building by tables and other merchandise during an inspection last March 28.

He said such a record of citations was "about standard" for high-rise buildings. "These kinds of violations are all too common," he said.

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