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Interstate, Site of Fire, Deemed Safe : Tower Ready for Tenants--but Some Are Skittish

Times Staff Writer

Today, even as wind continues to whistle through the burned-out waist of the First Interstate Bank building, several dozen bank employees and other office workers will begin moving back into refurbished floors of Los Angeles’ tallest building.

City inspectors issued the last of the multitude of permits approving re-occupation of the building late Friday, just before closing for the long Labor Day weekend.

“Except for the actual fire floors, which are still not rebuilt, that building is at least as safe now as prior to the fire,” Chief Los Angeles Building Inspector Russell Lane said. “Structurally, even the day of the fire, that building was, and is, safe.”

With the final permit in hand, First Interstate Tower spokesman Gerald Poppink announced that a “phased re-entry” of the building would begin today, with mostly bank employees returning first. A schedule is being developed for the return over the next several weeks of most of the remaining 30 to 40 law firms, banks, investment firms and others.

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The building has been empty except for cleanup crews since May 4, when fire of still-unknown origin erupted on the 12th floor, killing a building engineer and traumatizing dozens of workers who fought their way to safety through dense smoke that filled the tower like a chimney.

However, refilling the 1 million square feet of office space may not be easy. Some tenants remained skeptical about a building that had been plastered with signs from the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department warning “Unsafe Building, Do Not Enter.” The signs were removed Sunday.

One small law firm has given notice that it will not return, and has filed suit against the building owners. A spokesman for a small investment firm burned out of the 13th floor said Monday that the company has decided to remain in temporary quarters that it finds more suitable.

Other tenants, some with long leases, said they were awaiting further safety data before deciding to move back. Ten floors in the 62-story building were vacant before the fire.

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In an effort to stave off such fears, the building owners took out full-page newspaper ads last week showing the tower under a magnifying glass and labeling it “the most looked-at building in Los Angeles.” Still, some tenants expressed reservations.

“We have a lease, but you can quote me that we’re not going back until we’re convinced it’s perfectly safe,” said Sam Highleyman, managing partner of Coudert Brothers, a law firm that is the building’s second-largest tenant.

“We’re scheduled to move back Oct. 1. But I can’t believe they’re going to be ready for us. . . . We don’t have a negative attitude about this. But we’re not satisfied, either. We’ve gotten zip from them as to safety reports.”

Release From Lease Sought

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Samuel Rees of the law firm Leff Katz Rees and Mocciaro said his small firm sued the building’s owners in August, seeking release from its lease and compensatory and punitive damages as well.

“We had clients say they weren’t going to go up in the building, lawyers say they wouldn’t take depositions there, and a couple of staff saying they’d quit if we returned,” Rees said.

Rees said he had repeatedly asked for safety reports about the building and had been denied such information, as well as access by independent engineers to assess damage. “If it’s so safe, why are they so secretive?” he asked.

Poppink released to the press over the weekend a six-page structural evaluation report indicating that every steel beam and column, as well as bolts and welded connections, were extensively tested and found to be unimpaired by the fire. He said city inspectors worked closely with structural engineers in taking samples and testing them.

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The glass and aluminum windows, which are still missing on the fire floors, do not function as building supports, the report said.

Poppink said the building owners did not want each tenant hiring its own engineers to inspect the building because such a process would prove unmanageable, especially if each tenant wanted his own building samples. He said two tenants have requested copies of the entire 700-page building report and that they will receive copies soon.

Partly to demonstrate its own confidence in the building, First Interstate is moving its own employees in first.

Bank Will Reopen

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The main branch of First Interstate Bank, which occupies the ground floor of the tower, would reopen this morning, Poppink said. Also returning today will be employees of First Interstate Bank Corp., which, with Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, owns the building in a joint venture called First Interstate Tower. The only other tenant scheduled to move in today is a travel agency, Ask Mr. Foster.

“If the Bank Corp. and First Interstate people move back, there is a statement there,” said John Popovich, spokesman for First Interstate Bank of California. “I think it will be one of the safest buildings in L.A.”

Not until sometime in 1989 will the fire floors be rebuilt and ready for occupation. Plastic will cover the open floors to protect them from rain over the winter.

The phased-in return to the building marks the end of an intense, four-month cleaning and reconstruction operation. At times, as many as 2,000 janitors, electricians, plumbers, construction workers, engineers and others have been working to restore the interior.

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Specialty crews vacuum-cleaned floppy disks, freeze-dried and restored water-damaged files, and created a nationwide cloth diaper shortage in June because they used 10 tons of the lint-free diapers to clean the tower. An electronics shop was set up on the 27th floor to dismantle, clean and reassemble more than 7,000 computer components.

Sprinkler System

One million feet of smoke-stained ceiling tiles have been replaced, and furniture and carpeting have been cleaned or replaced, Poppink said. A sprinkler system, nearly completed but not in use at the time of the fire, is now in service, he said.

Though more definitive figures are not expected to be available for many months, the fire is now believed to have caused about $40 to $45 million in damage to the building. That estimate does not include loss of revenue, liability lawsuits and other losses.

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Still to be resolved, perhaps not for years, is just how the myriad of insurance companies, tenants and building owners will settle responsibility for business losses, liability costs and actual damages brought about by the fire.

So far, tenants and building spokesmen said, individual tenants have paid their own costs of relocating and much of the expense of cleaning their own smoke-damaged quarters. “We’re out of pocket a lot,” Highleyman said. “But we expect that will get resolved, and we’ll be reimbursed.”


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