[cifnmedia] Fire Dept. admits stairways not searched

  • From: Sean & Kimberly Aaron <cifn@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: CIFN LIST <cifnmedia@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 31 Oct 2003 09:38:10 -0800 (PST)

Fire Dept. admits stairways ;
not searched top to bottom 
Copyright 2003 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.   
Chicago Sun-Times  
 October 25, 2003 Saturday 

City Hall Reporter 

The Chicago Fire Department never did a top-to-bottom stairway search of the 
Cook County Administration Building, even though firefighters on the scene knew 
there were people trapped in a locked stairwell gasping for air and pleading 
for help, City Hall acknowledged Friday.

During an extraordinary three-hour news conference that featured gripping 
accounts from heroic firefighters and chilling recordings of 911 calls, Fire 
Commissioner James Joyce struggled to explain the 90-minute delay in locating 
the bodies of six victims at 69 W. Washington.

Instead of methodically searching all the stairways from the top to the bottom, 
Joyce said firefighters concentrated their search for victims on the 14th, 15th 
and 16th floors immediately above the 12th-floor fire while struggling to 
contain a "living hell" of a fire that one veteran officer described as the 
worst high-rise blaze he had ever seen.

Joyce did not explain why firefighters did not climb higher when 911 callers 
were saying they were trapped on the 20th and 21st floors and were struggling 
to breathe.

He did say firefighters were hindered by an elevator breakdown and inoperative 
fire phones; a confused victim who sent firefighters racing to the wrong 
stairway, and a searing, 2,000-degree heat that exhausted firefighters, 
depleted their oxygen tanks and touched off alarms so loud it made it difficult 
to communicate.
"You start off in the beginning calling for an evacuation of the place. The 
doors are locked. Those are all contributing factors. ... If you picked that 
one day where a lot of little things could go wrong -- they did," Joyce said.

"It would be easy to say, 'Why didn't the firemen run up the stairs and carry 
all the ladies down?' In the meantime, we would have let the fire get out of 
control and get up the stairs. ... I don't think there's anything we would do 
differently. ... Would we be smarter next time? I'm sure we would be."

Joyce's admission that firefighters did not do a top-to-bottom search of the 
stairwells appeared to contradict the emphatic claim he made on Monday. At that 
time he said, "Our firefighters walked from the 10th floor to the 35th floor 
looking, searching, calling out all that time."

Cortez Trotter, executive director of the city's Office of Emergency 
Communications, outlined a series of reforms aimed at preventing a repeat of 
the tragedy.

They include: pressurized stairwells and mandating that stairwell doors 
automatically unlock when fire alarms are activated; a requirement that smaller 
office buildings like 69 W. Washington file evacuation plans with the 911 
center so there's no confusion about the location or number of stairways; 
evacuation education for high-rise managers and "redefined" roles for 
firefighters on the scene.

The city will also consider communications upgrades, including digital radios 
and "automatic recording" of all ground radio transmissions and mandatory 
testing of fire phones. At least one of the fire phones that might have 
pinpointed the location of victims was not working at 69 W. Washington.

"No one -- NO ONE -- should be locked in a stairwell," Trotter said in a 
whisper, his voice choked with emotion.

Six people died and several others were injured Oct. 17 in the fire at a 
35-story building that houses 2,500 government workers but was not retrofitted 
with a sprinkler system.

It was Chicago's worst Loop high-rise fire in decades. The fatalities took 
firefighters on the scene by surprise. Moments before, they had breathed a 
public sigh of relief, thinking they had gotten away with just a few minor 

The Daley administration released the results of its internal inquiry Friday 
after a week filled with lawsuits, dueling investigations by the governor and 
County Board president and rare second-guessing from inside the Chicago Fire 
Department's closed fraternity.

"My blood and sweat are still up there on the 12th floor. . . . A fire with an 
attitude. A living hell. My Hail Marys turned into Holy Cows that day. . .. It 
was the worst high-rise fire that I have ever been in. I've been downtown ... 
24 years and never was I greeted with something like that," said Capt. Michael 
Gubricky of Engine One.

Lt. Anthony Williams of Aerial Tower One added, "Everybody took a beating. 
Everybody put their heart and their lives on the line. The outcome didn't come 
out as fantastic as we all would have liked. But we fought. And we fought 

Mayor Daley spent the week promising the victims' families a full account of 
the Fire Department's performance, but he was a no-show at Friday's news 
conference. Joyce was left to sink or swim by a mayor who, by all accounts, is 
furious about what happened at the Cook County Administration Building.

"This guy is really in a hot seat. ... I can't see him surviving. He should 
have retired," said a top mayoral adviser, who asked to remain anonymous.

Only time will tell whether the commissioner's explanation about the 90-minute 
gap will be enough to satisfy Daley. The Chicago Fire Department has been a 
frequent target of mayoral tirades over the years, but it hasn't happened much 
during Joyce's five-year tenure.

"We were searching as rapidly as we could. We were covering every square foot 
of that building. We were searching as we worked the fire. We were searching as 
we got notification of people lost or trapped and we had locations," the 
embattled commissioner said.

"That all took a toll on the time. The clock is ticking. [Ninety minutes] seems 
like a very long time when we're sitting here today [but] when you're working 
under those conditions, it goes by very rapidly."

The chilling 911 tapes included two calls from women trapped in locked 
stairwells, both of whom survived.

One woman correctly reported that she was on the 23rd floor of the northwest 
stairwell. The other was on the 21st floor of the southeast stairwell where the 
six bodies were found, but she wasn't certain where she was. She assumed, 
incorrectly, that there was only one stairwell. Firefighters made the mistaken 
assumption that the second call, like the first, was coming from the northwest 
stairwell and searched there instead.

"Oh God. I can't stand it. . . . Oh God. I can't breathe," one woman said.

In both cases, 911 call takers performed heroically. They calmed, cajoled and 
guided the panicked victims like mothers protecting endangered children.

The second woman was still on the phone when she made it out of the building.

"Are you outside now? Are you OK?" the call taker said.

"I feel like I'm going to faint," the woman replied.

"Get to a fire truck. Tell them you were in the fire and you need an 
ambulance," the call taker said.

"I feel OK now," the woman said. "Can I go home?"


Sean A. Aaron (CIFN*1)
Central Illinois Fire Network

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