Officials Faulted in Ill. Fire Deaths

From Associated Press

An investigation into a high-rise fire that killed six people last month concluded that an unnecessary evacuation order and firefighters' failure to immediately search every floor for victims contributed to the deaths.

The city released a summary Wednesday of its investigation into the Oct. 17 blaze in the 35-story Cook County Administration Building. The victims died of smoke inhalation and were found in locked stairwells.

The summary points to errors by building managers and fire officials -- including the decision by a building employee to order a total evacuation, even though Fire Department guidelines called for only eight floors surrounding a fire to be emptied.

The evacuation order "placed occupants on upper floors in stairwells where they were far removed from the fire but ultimately were overcome by resulting smoke after finding the doors had locked behind them," said Cortez Trotter, executive director of the city Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

The report also faulted firefighters for failing to immediately search every floor.

The fire broke out on the 12th floor; all the victims were found in the upper floors. They were found 90 minutes after the fire broke out, once firefighters had brought the blaze under control.

Dan Boho, an attorney for the building's private managers, said the building engineer called for an evacuation after going to the 12th floor soon after the fire broke out. He was knocked to the ground by an explosion and had to feel his way back to the elevator lobby because the smoke already was so thick, Boho said.

"We really believe this was a judgment call and, under the circumstances, an appropriate judgment call," Boho said.

He said building managers were not asked to participate in the inquiry and did not know the report was being released.

Fire Commissioner James Joyce said fire officials did not try to stop the evacuation once they came on the scene. Firefighters had searched the floors closest to the blaze for victims, and went to specific floors where they had gotten calls for help. But the report found that they did not perform a top-to-bottom search of the stairwells until the fire had been brought under control.

The fire's cause has not been determined, but victims' lawyers have said they suspect a fluorescent light fixture malfunctioned.

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