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Fire again hits Westside high-rise, prompting new call to close sprinkler loophole

For a terrifying few minutes, the man clung to the side of the 25-story high-rise as flames consumed an apartment unit just a few feet away. He contemplated jumping, authorities said, but was persuaded to hang on until a firefighter atop a tall ladder collected him safely.

The scene played out Wednesday morning above Wilshire Boulevard at Barrington Plaza, a sprawling Westside apartment complex where a fire in the same tower in 2013 caused serious injuries.

With hundreds of firefighters battling the flames Wednesday, at least 15 tenants who raced to the rooftop were airlifted from danger by hovering helicopters, while others described crawling on their bellies to escape smoke-filled hallways.

The fire left 13 people injured, one of them gravely, and renewed calls for Los Angeles elected officials to require sprinklers in all high-rise residential buildings. Barrington Plaza had none, authorities said — one of 55 residential high-rises built between 1943 and 1974 that are exempt from the city’s sprinkler requirements.

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Liz Bowers, a Barrington Plaza resident, awoke to sirens and smoke Wednesday morning and recalled thinking, “Surely it’s not another fire.” But when she looked out her window, flames confirmed her fears. “They should have put sprinklers in after the [2013] fire,” she said.

The City Council has repeatedly considered expanding the sprinkler requirement but has backed away because of objections from building owners who said the fixes would be too expensive and would drive up rents.

Councilman Mike Bonin said he would introduce a proposal Friday to “mandate the damn sprinklers.”

The blaze engulfed the sixth and seventh floors of the A Tower at the complex, in the 11700 block of Wilshire Boulevard. The fire was reported just after 8:30 a.m. by fire crews who were tending a nearby blaze.

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As many as 400 firefighters responded. 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 suffered smoke inhalation. Two firefighters suffered minor burns.

A 30-year-old man required CPR and was listed in grave condition Wednesday, while another 30-year-old man was in critical condition, L.A. Fire Capt. Erik Scott said.

Both men were believed to be tenants of the apartment unit where the fire broke out, Scott said.

The complex is owned by the Santa Monica-based real estate giant Douglas Emmett Inc. The company describes Barrington Plaza — comprising three towers — as a “resort-style” complex with ocean views, an Olympic-size pool and luxury amenities.

But tenants complained Wednesday that despite rents of up to $3,500, one elevator was broken, requests for other repairs went unheeded and management had made no apparent safety improvements since the 2013 fire.

Many tenants blamed the problems on short-term renters from Airbnb, who they said filled some of the 712 units in the three towers. “A lot of people Airbnb here,” said resident John Tavakoli. “They party all night — they’re up until 2 a.m. on a Tuesday.”

He said that while safety issues go unaddressed, “our rent goes up, utilities go up, but one elevator’s always broken.”

Douglas Emmett representatives issued a statement Wednesday evening saying: “Our deepest sympathies go out to all who have been impacted by today’s fire. Our priority is the safety and well-being of our residents. We will continue to work with the Los Angeles Fire Department and all local authorities.”

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The company said it had reserved hotel rooms for residents who were displaced.

Fire officials initially reported that some people had jumped from the building to escape the flames. They later clarified to say that the man who clung to the side of the building and a second person had contemplated jumping before both were rescued.

Firefighters took an unconventional approach in battling the flames, hosing the building from the outside in an effort to cool the units before tackling the flames inside. The bulk of the fire was on the sixth floor. Three other floors were damaged by smoke, authorities said.

“This could have been much worse,” said Scott, the Fire Department captain. “These firefighters were literally driven to their bellies halfway through that hallway, before they even got to that fire.”

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, he said. The fire that started earlier in the morning about three blocks away also is part of the investigation.

During the 2013 fire at Barrington Plaza, many residents described not hearing fire alarms or getting inadequate notice from the building management.

Eight tenants who sued Douglas Emmett alleging negligence reached settlements with the company, according to their lawyer, Shawn McCann.

They complained not only about the lack of sprinklers but also that the building’s stairwells were not pressurized. The lack of pressurized stairwells meant that escape routes instead became traps where residents suffered severe smoke inhalation during the fire, McCann said.

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McCann said several victims of the 2013 fire called him when they heard about Wednesday’s blaze.

“There were all these people put into a building without adequate fire protections, protections we assume most buildings have. So it was an accident waiting to happen,” McCann said of the 2013 fire. “And now, even after litigation and a trial and settlements, it was an accident waiting to be repeated.”

An attorney representing Douglas Emmett did not respond to a request for comment.

Previous fires have prompted city officials to make some safety improvements.

A 1982 blaze at the Dorothy Mae apartments near downtown, which killed 25 people, led to a law requiring sprinklers on apartment buildings built before 1943.

In 1988, one person died and 40 were injured when a fire broke out downtown in what is now Aon Center, then called First Interstate Tower and Los Angeles’ tallest building. The city again moved to expand fire sprinkler protections — this time extending them to high-rise offices that hadn’t previously been covered.

But the city still did not require sprinklers on high-rise apartments built after 1943 and before 1974. Barrington Plaza was completed in 1963. At the time, it was touted as the largest residential apartment complex in the West.

The city took up the matter again after the 2013 Barrington Plaza fire, and as late as January 2019 it had considered an ordinance to expand sprinkler protections to the high-rises built in those gap years.

Councilman Mitch O’Farrell cast the lone vote at a committee hearing to push ahead a strict sprinkler retrofit law.

“It seemed like a no-brainer. I remember thinking, ‘With the people who live there and the firefighters who have to respond, they deserve these protections,’” O’Farrell said Wednesday.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas recommended in 2017 that sprinklers be installed in all 55 buildings that still did not have them. The department’s Fire Prevention Bureau estimated that it would cost $1.6 million for a 16-story apartment building to be retrofitted, or about $6,000 per unit, excluding the cost of any asbestos abatement and demolition.

On Wednesday, Terrazas credited “a herculean effort by the members of the Los Angeles Fire Department” with putting out the fire, despite wind gusts of up to 35 mph. Firefighters knocked down the flames shortly before 10 a.m., a little more than an hour after the fire began.

Residents described a disorienting scene in which some heard alarms, others heard an announcement to evacuate and a few said they did not know there was a problem until they were alerted by neighbors or by the smell of smoke.

Ali Mara, 26, was sleeping in her apartment on Stoner Avenue, across the street from Barrington Plaza, when she was woken up by sirens and the smell of smoke.

“It’s just really sad,” she said. “I just feel sad for those people.”

Times staff writers Luke Money, Hannah Fry, Emily Alpert Reyes, James Rainey, Matt Stiles, Colleen Shalby, Matthew Ormseth and Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report.


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