Fire Heightens Concern About Buildings' Safety

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As flames and smoke poured from the grimy nine-story RK Building on Tuesday, Maria Mazariejo watched in horror from across South Los Angeles Street as a woman in the burning building came close to jumping out of a window.

The woman was saved by firefighters, but Mazariejo, a clothing inspector who works on the 10th floor of another garment district building, said she and co-workers were left shaken by how close they were to witnessing a tragedy.

More to the point, they saw themselves in that woman's place and feared the same could happen to them one day.

"We're going to talk to the owner about our business next week," Mazariejo said. "We're going to tell him we want more protection."

Throughout the hundreds of sewing factories and clothing shops that pack the 20 square blocks of the garment district, fear of a disastrous fire always lingers in the back of people's minds, workers said Tuesday.

They speak of buildings without sprinkler systems, adequate escape routes or, as in the case of the RK Building, without fire alarms.

Garment workers who fled the nine-story building said that amid the screams and cries for help, they never heard an alarm. Fire officials said there was none.

"It makes you mad," said Selina Ko, who works on the ninth floor of the building. "We heard nothing, no alarm, not a thing."

"Just look at those buildings," said Renee Cohen, who owns a shop across the street from the RK Building. "They look like hell. For fire, nobody should feel comfortable in one of them."

By most accounts, the RK Building is no different from many of others in the garment district that workers contend could be dangerous in a fire.

"What we see here is pretty typical of the kinds of problems we commonly see throughout the city in commercial buildings like this," said Assistant Fire Chief Tony Ennis.

Bob Gershon, owner of a building across the street, said he believes most owners are conscientious about maintaining their buildings.

"These buildings are worth too much money," he said.

Rosalind Alfieri, who manages a building at 9th and Main streets, said owners are constantly upgrading their buildings, but that it takes time and money to bring them up to modern safety codes.

She said the Fire Department recently notified the owners of her building that they will have to submit plans for a fire protection system in the next year.

"We have to enclose the stairwells, elevator doors, install a sprinkler system, new lighting system and electrified exit signs," she said. "It's a multimillion-dollar operation."

Those are measures that some wish had been taken at the RK Building years ago.

"If you work here, you know how really dangerous it is," said Chris Jong, manager of a sewing factory on the seventh and eighth floors of the RK Building. "I talked with employees about starting work again. If you look at their faces, you can see they are not coming back. They are really scared."

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