Fire at West L.A. high-rise sends residents scrambling for safety; two critically injured
A fire broke out Wednesday morning in a 25-story Westside residential building, sending residents climbing out windows and fleeing to the rooftop to escape the flames.
The blaze, which erupted on the sixth floor at the Barrington Plaza apartments in the 11700 block of Wilshire Boulevard, was reported shortly after 8:30 a.m. by fire crews, who were tending a nearby blaze that had begun earlier.
At least 300 firefighters responded to help battle the fire and evacuate residents inside the building. Eleven residents were injured; seven were sent to a hospital for treatment, including a 3-month-old baby, and four were treated at the scene. Most were suffering from smoke inhalation. Two firefighters suffered minor burns.
One 30-year-old man required CPR and was listed in grave condition Wednesday afternoon, and another 30-year-old man was in critical condition, according to Los Angeles Fire Capt. Erik Scott.
“The preliminary information is the two most critically injured … were both in the unit of fire origin,” Scott said.
Fire officials initially reported that some people had jumped from the building to escape the flames. Authorities later clarified that two people contemplated jumping but were rescued by fire officials. Residents crawled on their bellies through thick smoke to escape. One man was seen clinging to a ledge before a fire ladder was hoisted up to him.
“This could have been much worse,” Scott said.
Fire officials said residents won’t be allowed back into the building overnight while they investigate the blaze, which was deemed suspicious.
Firefighters took an unconventional approach in battling the flames, hosing the building from the outside in an effort to cool the units before allowing firefighters to tackle the flames inside. The bulk of the fire was on the sixth floor of the 240-unit high-rise, though three other levels were damaged by smoke, officials said.
While some crews focused on the fire inside, others were tasked with evacuations. At least 15 people, some in bathrobes, were airlifted to safety from the building’s rooftop. Officials said it was the first time the fire chopper had been used in rescue efforts.
“This was a herculean effort by the members of the Los Angeles Fire Department,” said Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas. “It takes a lot of coordination, and our resources did a good job.”
After an intense, hourlong battle that was made more challenging by strong winds gusting up to 35 mph, firefighters were able to knock down the flames shortly before 10 a.m.
Deputy Police Chief Justin Eisenberg said the Los Angeles Police Department and arson investigators were studying the blaze to determine whether it was criminal or accidental. No one has been arrested in connection with the fire, he said. The separate fire that started earlier in the morning about three blocks away also is part of the investigation.
Mackenzie Williams, 25, said she was driving to work at Pure Barre — a fitness studio at Wilshire Boulevard and Granville Avenue — about 9 a.m. when she “saw one firetruck pass by me, then I saw two, then I saw 10, then I saw about 20, so I definitely knew something was going on.”
After seeing smoke pouring from the building and the helicopter evacuations, she said, “I just hope everyone is OK over there.”
John Tavakoli was outside when the floor where his grandmother lives burst into flames. As firefighters rushed to evacuate her and her neighbors, his initial horror settled into smoldering rage — another fire like this one had burned here a few years ago, but little had changed. Like others, he blamed the revolving door of short-term renters for unsafe conditions in the building.
“A lot of people Airbnb here.” he said. “They party all night — they’re up until 2 a.m. on a Tuesday.”
Meanwhile, he said, safety issues have gone unaddressed.
“Our rent goes up, utilities go up, but one elevator’s always broken,” he said.
Resident Gavyn Straus stood barefoot on the sidewalk, holding a towel around his American-flag bathing suit as he watched a Sheriff’s Department helicopter hoisting stranded neighbors off the roof. He had been in the pool swimming laps when he turned his head for a breath and noticed the smoke. Right away, he leaped out of the pool and dashed up to alert neighbors on his floor.
The smoke “was like a black wall” on the seventh floor, he said. Higher up, he started banging on doors, telling neighbors to get out.
Twins Kristina and Kimberly Pagano, recent UCLA grads, were asleep in their apartment when the fire broke out. They woke up to the sound of firetrucks. Moments later, the building fire alarm went off, and they rushed outside.
Both immediately thought of the 2013 fire, believed to have been sparked by a cigarette. The building still allows residents to smoke in their units on designated floors, which the sisters had toured before moving in. Like others, they said the building hosts a large number of short-term visitors.
“We always see people with luggage,” Kristina said.
“It’s like a hotel,” Kimberly agreed.
Officials have said that there is no indication the fire was caused by anyone smoking inside or that it broke out in a unit rented as an Airbnb.
The building is covered by L.A.’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which limits annual rent increases for tenants, but some of its units are exempt from that law, according to housing department spokeswoman Sandra Mendoza. Under an ordinance that went into effect last year, Angelenos cannot rent out their apartments for short stays if they live in a rent-stabilized unit.
The 2013 fire erupted on the 11th floor of the building, displacing up to 150 residents and injuring two people. It also raised concerns about a lack of sprinkler systems in some buildings in Los Angeles.
Barrington Plaza was not equipped with a sprinkler system at the time. Because it was built nearly 60 years ago, it does not fall under state regulations later adopted that forced buildings taller than 75 feet to include such fire-suppression systems unless granted an exemption.
Los Angeles has a loophole in its fire code that allows 71 residential high-rises to house tenants despite having no fire sprinklers in the buildings. The structures were built between 1943 and 1974, when new codes required sprinklers.
Deputy Chief Armando Hogan said Wednesday the building still does not have sprinklers.
There have been repeated attempts to require older buildings to install sprinkler systems, including a push after Barrington Plaza’s last fire, but landlords at the time argued they would cost too much.
A year ago, the City Council again tabled a proposal to require sprinklers in all buildings. One of the sponsors of the measure said the issue lost momentum amid opposition from landlords, but Councilman Mike Bonin said he will reintroduce a mandate for sprinklers in light of the latest blaze.
Curtis Massey, chief executive of fire safety consulting company Massey Emergency Management, said the sprinkler systems typically seen in modern high-rises quickly douse flames before they have a chance to spread.
“It’s like an on-duty 24-hour firefighter that’s able to respond faster in most circumstances to a fire than the building staff or the fire department,” said Massey, whose company has worked on fire preparedness plans for Century Plaza and the Wilshire Grand Center.
Modern fire safety features also include elevator and stairwell-pressurization systems that keep the smoke out of those areas, he said.
In 2014, a group of tenants in the high-rise sued the building’s corporate owner for negligence.
According to residents, several fire alarms failed to sound in Barrington Plaza as the October 2013 blaze spread. A door to the roof was locked and the stairwells filled with choking smoke, tenants said.
“The conditions at the supposedly high-end apartment building were atrocious,” attorney Mark Geragos said at the time.
Resident Ivo Gerscovich’s 2-year-old daughter and father-in-law were found unconscious in a smoke-filled stairwell above the 20th floor during the 2013 fire.
“It’s a deathtrap,” Gerscovich said then. “It’s totally insane and indefensible.”
Ben Meiselas, an attorney with Geragos’ firm, said the building “is a relic of the 1960s.”
“It conformed to codes of the 1960s, and since that time, they’ve availed themselves through grandfather clauses of the building codes of that bygone era,” he said.
Meiselas said building owners should be required to prominently display whether their structures adhere to current codes.
“You have this building that advertises itself as a class-A luxury building, but back in 2013, at least, it really had fundamental safety issues,” he said.
Residents said that they weren’t aware of any additional safety measures.
“This situation really scares me,” said Ploy Pengsomboon, who was able to evacuate from her ninth-floor unit only after smelling smoke and hearing firetruck sirens. “I’m scared if one day I’m in a deep sleep and something like this happens. I didn’t get a chance to prepare. They should tell everyone to get out and shouldn’t let us learn about it ourselves.”
The blaring of a fire alarm woke 84-year-old Dan Karzen, who has lived in Barrington Plaza for 20 years.
“I had my pajamas on, so I had to hurry to put some clothes on, grab my phone and walk out the door of my 16th-floor apartment,” Karzen said. “I knew it was bad because there was all this smoke.”
After leaving the building, he crossed the street to a strip mall, where he stopped to await word from fire officials.
“I don’t know when we’re going to go back in, and I don’t want to leave because all my stuff is up there,” he said.
When Liz Bowers was jolted awake by sirens, she smelled smoke and immediately thought it couldn’t be another fire, remembering the 2013 blaze. But when she looked out her window, there it was.
“I was like … it’s Tower A again,” she said.
She had a clear view of the flames and clouds of black smoke. She could hear screams and windows blowing out from the heat of the flames. Bowers ran downstairs to the public pool area shared by the two buildings and continued watching as firefighters worked to quell the flames and rescue residents. After witnessing the dramatic events, she decided she’d had enough. She needs to move out.
Bowers thought about all the times she could smell cigarette and marijuana smoke from her apartment, the result of little oversight from building managers, she said. She spent three years knocking on the leasing office’s door, writing letters and making phone calls to building managers. Eventually, she gave up.
“They should have put sprinklers in after the  fire,” she said. “They let everybody smoke. There’s a lot of Airbnb [rentals]. You get all these people coming into party and smoke pot. The landlords don’t care.”
Times staff writers Matt Stiles, Dakota Smith, Colleen Shalby, Andrew J. Campa, Emily Alpert Reyes, James Rainey and Matthew Ormseth contributed to this report.
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