Sixteen trapped workers were plucked from the roof by a helicopter and 15 more were hauled down fire ladders propped against upper-floor windows as flames swept through the sixth floor of a nine-story building in the downtown Los Angeles garment district Tuesday morning.
About 40 people were injured, most of them suffering smoke inhalation as the blaze isolated scores of workers on the top three floors of the 76-year-old structure at 754 S. Los Angeles St.
"One man was on his stomach on a windowsill, just two stories below the roof . . . screaming for help in Spanish," said Renee Cohen, co-owner of a clothing store across the street. "We screamed back, 'Hold on! Hang on! Don't jump!' "
The first of more than 20 Los Angeles fire units rolled up as the man clung to the sill. Moments later, he was pulled to safety on a fire ladder.
Fire officials said the building was not equipped with a sprinkler system or fire alarms. Under current law, the owners have until 1992 to install such systems.
An employee of one of the approximately 10 garment firms in the structure said he tried to use one of the building's fire hoses, but it didn't work.
The cause of the fire was not immediately determined, but workers at the Elite Fashion Co., which occupies the entire sixth floor, said the blaze apparently started in a small room where the firm stored rayon material used in the manufacture of imitation mink coats.
Fire officials said that most of the sixth floor was charred and that the two floors above also suffered fire damage. There was smoke damage on the upper floors. There was no immediate estimate of monetary losses.
On the seventh floor, Edgar Mijangos, 26, heard the screams of those fleeing the rapidly spreading flames below.
"I heard them breaking windows," he said. "Then I went to a window, and I saw them below me, gasping for air. They were screaming 'Auxilio! (Help!). They couldn't breathe because the smoke was so hot."
With the smoke spreading rapidly through the upper floors, workers fled as best they could.
Luis Delgado, 36, was one of those who decided it was better to head up--to the roof--than risk a dash down an interior stairwell or exterior fire escape past the flames that were rapidly engulfing much of the sixth floor.
But after climbing stairways and fire escapes to the roof, he said, he and the others atop the building soon found themselves enveloped in a rising cloud of increasingly hot smoke.
Delgado said their first thought was to try to reach another building, a tantalizing 15 feet away.
"We wanted to put a ladder and a board across," he said. "But the people (on the other building) wouldn't let us. They told us to stay calm, because the firemen were coming."
"I was yelling, 'Get us out of here! Get us out of here!' " said Ana Jimenez, 29, who is five months pregnant. "I asked God, 'Please, send someone to save us. Now!' "
The people on the roof said that after what seemed like an eternity--but was actually only a few minutes--a helicopter approached the building.
Hovering just above the roof because officials were uncertain how much weight the structure could bear, the Fire Department's big "Huey" transport helicopter picked up seven people there and flew them to the heliport atop the Piper Technical Center, just east of Union Station. It took one more trip to evacuate the other nine on the roof.
John Tang, owner of a sewing shop on the seventh floor, said that rather than head for the roof, some of his employees grabbed bolts of cloth to tie together into a makeshift rope for an escape attempt down the side of the building.
"Don't do that!" Tang said he shouted. "It's too dangerous!"
"I knew the material wouldn't support them," he explained later. "I told them to go down the stairs, but the smoke was too thick, and I told them to come back. Then I shut the door, shut off all the power and told the workers to get material wetted and cover their faces."
Eventually, Tang said, he and some of his employees escaped by crawling to open windows where firefighters had placed long extension ladders, while others made their way down fire escapes.
The blaze, which broke out about 11:30 a.m., burned for an hour before it was brought under control.
Assistant Fire Chief Jim Young said that about 40 people were treated at the scene and at the Piper Center for smoke inhalation and minor burns, cuts and bruises. Eighteen of the 40 were taken to hospitals for observation, but none were reported in serious condition.
Under ordinances adopted in July, 1988, after the destructive high-rise fire at the downtown First Interstate Bank building two months earlier, sprinklers and fire alarms are required in all buildings over 75 feet tall, regardless of when they were built.
However, the RK Building Co., owner of the structure that caught fire on Tuesday, was not cited for the lack of sprinklers and alarms until last September. Under the ordinances, the firm has one year to obtain a permit for installation of the systems from the city Department of Building and Safety. RK Building would then have two more years to install the systems.
Assistant Fire Chief Tony Ennis said the building's fire safety inspection file was "a fairly thick one," with several violations recorded over the years, although the owner was apparently working with fire inspectors to correct some of the problems.
An inspection in August, 1988, showed that the building had eight different types of violations, including windows leading to fire escapes that did not work properly, fire hoses lacking the correct nozzles and a lack of emergency exit signs.
Ennis said a follow-up inspection two months later showed there had been "partial compliance" with some of the complaints. He said he will look into why there had not been another follow-up inspection this year to determine if the other problems were corrected.
Times staff writers Ashley Dunn, John H. Lee, Maria Newman and Louis Sahagun contributed to this story.