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For siblings who escaped almost 50 years ago, fire at L.A. high rise was deja vu, again

Los Angeles firefighters battle a large blaze at the 25-story Barrington Plaza apartments
Los Angeles firefighters battle a large blaze at the 25-story Barrington Plaza apartments.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It was early and dark when a loud thud and the crash of the front door woke up 9-year-old Matthew Stegman and his 12-year-old sister, Janet.

Within seconds, the siblings heard several strange and plodding footsteps from people entering their father’s two-bedroom Westside apartment accompanied by the smell of smoke and charred wood.

Frightened, the boy pulled the covers over his head, while his sister sat up in a cold fear, her eyes still adjusting to the inky blackness. The strangers opened an empty master bedroom before heading to the guest room where the siblings slept in separate single beds.

Janet could hear muddled conversation. Then the door to the children’s room suddenly swung open.

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Surprised by the startled youngsters, the firefighter yelled a profanity.

“All of a sudden there were five firefighters walking around our apartment in full uniform,” Janet Stegman recalled.

It was New Year’s Day, 1971. The fire had broken out on the fourth floor of the Barrington Plaza apartment complex on Wilshire Boulevard.

Almost 50 years later, it was a case of deja vu as the Barrington Plaza burned again.

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This time, the blaze broke out on the sixth floor, causing hundreds of tenants to scramble to escape. The building had no fire sprinklers. Residents scurried for their lives, with some climbing out of windows and others being rescued from the rooftop. One person died on Friday evening while another dozen people were injured. The fire spurred a lawsuit and calls for safety reforms.

In the aftermath of the blaze, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mike Bonin spoke of ending an exemption that allowed high-rises built between 1943 and 1974, such as the Barrington Plaza, to not install fire sprinklers.

“This loophole is a dangerous one,” Garcetti said the day after. “Fires happen much more than earthquakes in this town and we dodged a bullet. There could have been a lot of lives lost yesterday.”

The fire, which happened Wednesday, followed seven years after another one at the high rise — in 2013. As the Stegmans watched the news, it all felt so familiar.

In 2013, Matthew Stegman, now a 58-year old federal prosecutor, said he was walking through a shopping complex in Washington, D.C., when he caught a CNN news report that led to a double take.

“I saw a high-rise fire in L.A., and I said, ‘Oh, my God, that looks like the Barrington Plaza’ and it was,” he said. “That place keeps having problems.”

The 1971 fire erupted around 12:52 a.m. down the hall from where the Stegman children slept. A dried out Christmas tree in another apartment had caught fire and the flames spread, eventually rendering all three of the 25-story building’s elevators unusable.

As firefighters were escorting the children out of the apartment, their panicked father, Edwin Stegman, was pushing his way past security guards to try to reach his kids.

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Matthew Stegman, then 9, and Janet Stegman, then 12, with their father, Edwin Stegman, in 1970.
Siblings Matthew and Janet Stegman, who survived a 1971 fire at Barrington Plaza, in a 1970 family photo with their father, Edwin Stegman, who was out at the time of the fire.
(Matthew Stegman)

Father and children met in the fourth-floor hallway, which was water-logged from the firefighters’ hoses.

Edwin Stegman, who left his kids asleep while he headed to a New Year’s Eve party, was forever grateful for a thick 1-hour-rated fire door and the persistence of Los Angeles firefighters.

“We walked down the stairs together,” Matthew Stegman said of his father and sister. “We went to a nearby 24-hour coffee shop and had some hot chocolate before we were let back into the apartment later in the day.”

Janet Stegman added: “We were lucky because I never heard an alarm. We didn’t smell the fire.”

On Wednesday, Matthew Stegman turned the television on when he got home.

The Washington, D.C.-based attorney, a member of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, stared at close-ups of an apartment complex in flames some 3,000 miles away.

Even before the CBS Evening News identified the location, Stegman was almost positive he recognized the building. The Barrington Plaza was burning again.

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Reports said the incident was the second at the complex in seven years. Stegman vividly recalled the fire much longer ago.

“When I saw the TV, I saw the balcony, the fire coming out and the black on the outside,” Stegman said. “It’s just what it looked like back then … and it was eerily similar.”

Matthew Stegman said his father had been living in the Barrington Plaza for about a month after separating from his wife, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lillian M. Stevens.

Edwin Stegman moved out shortly after the blaze.

“A few months later, there was a problem with a boiler or heating unit or something else exploding and he just felt like that building was a death trap and decided to get out,” Matthew Stegman said.

Later on Wednesday, Matthew and his sister Janet, 61, reconnected over their experience in 1971 over the phone.

The siblings don’t remember the fire exactly the same way. He believes he heard a fire alarm, while his sister has no such recollection. But the Stegmans share a laugh over one of their most colorful memories: the shock of the first firefighter who came to their rescue and the expletive that came out of his mouth that New Year’s Day morning.

“I’ll never forget that; it’s like a video playing,” Janet Stegman said. “You know you have some memories in your life that you can’t forget.”


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