Adding Film to the Fire : Re-Enacted for TV, First Interstate Blaze Is Relived by Survivors


Melinda Skaar tries to remember the good things that came out of that night two years ago when the First Interstate Bank building burned. Like a firefighter named Fred who found her limp, lying across a desk, and wrapped her in blankets to stop her from shaking.

But sometimes the buffer of time breaks down and the painful memories rush back, especially when she hears a fire siren blaring in the night.

"I get a rush sometimes," Skaar said as film crews scurried around a dampened downtown street filming a television re-enactment of the First Interstate blaze. "When I feel a firetruck (going by) it kind of takes me back. And you have this sunken feeling. Your heart drops."

This week, Skaar relived the evening in 1988 when one of the worst high-rise fires in the history of Los Angeles surged through the 62-story First Interstate tower on Wilshire Boulevard as she and a colleague sat trapped in an office. This time she watched the blaze and the firefighters who had come to fight it through the eyes of filmmakers and movie cameras instead of the blackened windows of the 37th floor.

Skaar, a consultant on the film, was one of many who lived through the blaze who are taking part in or simply watching the filming of the television movie. The movie will be aired early next year on ABC, according to executive producers Susan Whittaker and Carole Bloom.

David Kirk, Skaar's boyfriend, was there with her Tuesday. Two years earlier he had learned of the fire on a television news broadcast and frantically called nearly 20 hospitals in the hope that Skaar would be there and not trapped inside the burning building.

Also there were many of the Los Angeles city firefighters who helped put out the blaze that took the life of one person, caused millions of dollars in damage and sparked legislation that made sprinkler systems mandatory in Los Angeles high-rises.

And Tuesday, on the eve of his retirement dinner, Battalion Chief Don Cate, who had been the first fire official on the scene in 1988, issued orders for the last time to a group of firefighters as they prepared to battle an imaginary blaze.

"I probably wouldn't have done it for any other fire," said Cate, referring to his role as technical adviser on the movie. "I took the opportunity because it was the First Interstate fire.

"I kind of feel like it was my fire because I was the first guy (on the scene)" said Cate, who retired from the Fire Department in June after nearly 36 years of service. "I was at the First Interstate fire and there's not a lot of people who can say that."

Of course the high-rise fire done Hollywood style had different players. The hundreds of curious bystanders and news reporters there the night of the blaze were gone, replaced with entertainment journalists, movie extras and tourists on a Pacific Coast Sightseeing Tour.

Firefighters streaming off fire engines were cheered by members of the film crew and other bystanders, while a tanker truck took the place of fire hoses spraying water all over the street. Prop personnel placed paper and other office materials on the ground in front of the office building, simulating the real-life scene when shards of glass and charred debris rained down on the night of the blaze.

And the fire this time was considerably more manageable--the product of gas jets that could be turned on and off with a turn of the wrist. Even the location was different--replaced by a Chinatown sound stage and a Flower Street office building a block away from First Interstate. (First Interstate officials did not want their building used in the movie but consented to the use of its name.)

Still, some things seemed eerily the same.

"It was like this," Skaar said as she watched the re-creation of everything from the firetrucks lined up in formation to her metallic gray car that was charred and nearly demolished by falling embers and debris. "Firetrucks were everywhere. . . . It's just uncanny how similar they've been able to do things."

Skaar, during the nearly three weeks of shooting, had spent some days watching actress Lisa Hartman play Susan, the character based on herself. And sometimes while she watched her, Skaar said, she experienced that same dread that sometimes overcomes her when she hears the sound of a fire engine.

"When you see someone doing you, that's spooky," said Skaar, who spoke in particular of one scene where Hartman gazes at photographs of family members when she believes she will not be rescued. "It's amazing what you think when you think you're going to die . . ."

Similar thoughts went through Kirk's mind the night of the fire, he remembered. "At first I was in a panic," said the computer science graduate student. "You keep feeling this sick feeling. 'Is it going to be OK? What'll I do by myself?' "

Lois Cate, wife of the battalion chief, was also at the filming Tuesday.

She saw the red lights of 15 fire engines illuminating the northern corner of Flower Street and water trickling down the street as it had two years before when she stayed glued to the television, knowing her husband was down there.

"I didn't sleep that night," Cate remembered. And Tuesday, for a moment, she was afraid again.

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