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4 Firms Cited for Fire Hazards at First Interstate

Times Staff Writer

Four companies were cited Thursday by federal officials for knowingly allowing hazardous conditions to exist in the First Interstate Tower at the time a devastating fire broke out in the city’s tallest building on May 4. Those conditions were so serious that they may have been responsible for the death of one worker and injuries to 40 others, officials said.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited a co-owner of the building, a maintenance engineering company, a janitorial company and a security firm, alleging “willful violations” of fire protection standards.

Specifically, officials charged, three firms had shut off fire alarms that might have given earlier warning of the fire and all four companies had failed to educate employees about emergency fire procedures. Proposed penalties for the violations total $82,000.

‘Could Have Been Prevented’

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“Our message, very simply, is that fatalities and injuries of this sort could have been prevented and could be prevented in the future,” said Frank Gravitt, director of the Los Angeles OSHA office.

“Our findings show a high degree of knowledge of conditions and practices (by the companies) that constitute a violation of our safety and health standards and a failure to take adequate precautions.”

The citations are not a formal determination of what actually caused the death and injuries, Gravitt said. Rather, he said, they constitute a finding that the companies allowed conditions to exist in the building that could have resulted in injury or death, he said.

The category of “willful violations” is the most serious issued by OSHA, an arm of the U.S. Department of Labor set up to protect employees from unsafe working conditions.

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A willful violation is defined as one in which an employer knew a hazardous condition existed and made no reasonable effort to correct it. OSHA recommended the maximum penalty of $10,000 for each of the alleged willful violations of silencing alarms and failure to set up emergency fire procedures for employees.

Los Angeles Fire Department officials announced shortly after the May 4 fire that security guards had repeatedly silenced fire alarms originating on the 12th floor, causing a delay of at least seven minutes between the time the first alarm was sounded and the Fire Department was notified by employees in neighboring buildings.

Building engineer Alexander Handy, 24, died when he took an elevator to check out what was suspected to be a false alarm.

As for fire emergency plans, many of the about 40 janitors known to be in the building at the time said in interviews afterward that they did not know what they were supposed to do in case of fire. Many were Spanish-speaking and did not understand English warnings issued over loudspeakers.

OSHA also cited the four companies for lesser violations, which the agency classifies as “serious.” Among them were failure to give emergency warnings in Spanish, blockage of fire doors and turning off water in the building, thus inhibiting firefighters’ ability to fight the fire.

The four companies cited and their proposed penalties were:

American Building Maintenance Engineering Service, which employed Handy, $23,900; Equitable Real Estate, which manages the building for the co-owner Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, $23,900; Pedus Security Services Inc., which employs the building’s security guards, $23,100, and Commercial Building Maintenance Co., which employs the janitors, $11,600.

Equitable, American Building, and Pedus were cited for two willful violations each: silencing an alarm and failing to educate workers about emergency fire procedures. The janitorial firm was charged with one willful violation involving the emergency fire procedures.

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American Building Maintenance and Equitable Real Estate each also received five “serious” violations, defined as those “where a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result.” Pedus received four such citations and Commercial Building Maintenance two.

Spokesmen for American Building Maintenance, Equitable Real Estate and Commercial Building Maintenance Co. could not be reached for comment.

An attorney for Pedus Security, Rob Kelly, said the company considered all the citations “unfounded.”

He charged that some alleged violations occurred in areas outside the security company’s responsibility. As for turning off the fire alarm, he said, that “is an open question because it was not working properly at the time.” He said Pedus will contest the citations.

Under federal law, cited companies have 15 working days to accept OSHA’s findings and pay the proposed penalties or to contest them before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Times staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this article.


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