The words blared over the public address system, loud and clear: “Everybody out of the building. This is not a drill.” Two employees of a law firm on the 14th floor of the Great American Bank Building glanced at each other, then at the ceiling. They had been through several recent evacuations. If this was truly an emergency, they wondered, why were the lights still on? The fluorescent tubes overhead flickered, then went dark.
The second fire of the week in the high-rise building at 600 B St. erupted one minute before 5 p.m. Like Monday’s fire, it began in an enclosed room full of electrical wires. But, unlike the first fire between the second and third floors, Thursday’s blaze began in a control panel on the mezzanine level between the first and second floors, said Fire Department spokesman Larry Cooke.
Smoke Billowed Out
Within minutes, smoke billowed from the front doors of the building and water from the automatic sprinkler system on the first floor flowed over the tiles of the bank lobby. By that hour, most of the 1,000 or so workers in the building had gone for the day, but those who remained took the warning seriously and hurried out, leaving unfinished work on their desks for the third time in four days.
After the fire was extinguished, Assistant Fire Marshal John Hale surveyed the damage and announced that the 24-story building will remain closed until 6 a.m. Monday. Employees will be allowed into their offices this morning to gather personal belongings, but no business will be conducted on the premises, Hale said.
Thursday’s fire marked the sixth time within three weeks that the building had been affected by a variety of electrical problems, office workers said. On Monday afternoon, a small fire in an electrical control room was attributed to flying sparks from an electrical short that ignited nearby insulation. Electricians worked through the night to repair the damage and employees returned to work Tuesday morning as usual, only to be evacuated again that afternoon as a safety precaution after the fire marshal’s discovery that the fire-alarm and public-address systems were not working.
Thursday morning, workers were greeted by the sight of black-jacketed security guards with walkie-talkies patrolling each floor as “fire wardens,” as recommended by the Fire Department. When the crucial moment came Thursday, both the fire alarm and the loudspeaker worked just fine--this time--said several office workers who recalled that no such warnings were issued on Monday.
In Control Room
Craig Wahlberg, an electrician who labored to fix the damage from Monday’s fire, was in the control room inspecting the repairs when it happened the second time.
“I heard sparks, I heard a crackling and snapping sound below me,” Wahlberg said. “I told a security guard, and we both grabbed fire extinguishers . . . we doused flames that were two or three feet high. We emptied those two extinguishers, and then we got out.”
Wahlberg, an employee of Construction Electronics, said he was one of many electricians who worked until 5 a.m. Tuesday to replace a section of electrical cables between the second and fourth floors that had melted together in the fire. The repaired cables appeared to be fine, he said, noting that Thursday’s fire broke out along a section of wires that were untouched by the earlier incident.
Workers scurrying from the building while firefighters rushed inside wore expressions ranging from grim to angry.
“There’s only one word for this, and I won’t say it with all these reporters around,” grumbled one woman.
“I am not coming back here tomorrow,” said another.
Sloshed Through Water
Lawyer Nancy Fuller-Jacobs sloshed through the deepening water in the lobby, then remarked: “I’ve already had an offer from a friend in the 4th Avenue Corporate Center to take refuge in his office. Tomorrow we’re going to Sacramento together and I’m going to tell him I’m seriously considering it.”
Vic Ahrens and two friends were loading office furniture into three pickup trucks parked in front of the high-rise when they suddenly found themselves hemmed in by fire engines. Ahrens said he and his friends were hired by a real estate firm on the 24th floor that had decided to move out in the wake of Monday’s fire.
The Great American Building, built before passage of a 1976 city ordinance requiring fire sprinklers on all floors, has sprinklers only on the first floor and basement. Assistant Fire Marshal Hale said Thursday night that it was too soon to say what caused the fire, but added: “It is an old system.”