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Fire suit hits $100M
FATAL 2003 BLAZE | Settlement includes $50 mil. from city

Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON

Meribeth Mermall can't stay on the elevator if someone presses the 27th floor.

Carol Melton covers her ears when 911 calls are replayed from that day.

Christine Konopka knows that but for an open door, she likely wouldn't be alive today.

Each lived through the horrific 2003 building fire at 69 W. Washington and each is happier now that negligence lawsuits they and 19 others filed have been settled for $100 million.

Six people died in tragedy marred by failures in communication between emergency responders, including instances, victims said, of firefighters telling people trying to escape to leave the building, only to be met by other firefighters ordering them back up the stairwells.

"These people did everything they were told to do and look what happened," attorney Robert Clifford said.

The city of Chicago agreed to pay $50 million toward the settlement -- the largest personal injury payout in Chicago history -- while the clout-heavy company that manages the building agreed to pay $26 million. Two security firms paid another $11 million, while Cook County government, which uses most of the office space, paid another $9 million. Firms involved in the design of the building and fire systems contributed $4 million more.

Individual settlements range from $159,000 to $11.7 million, Clifford said.

Taxpayers will pay $15 million toward the settlement, while another $35 million will be covered by the city's insurance policy.

The settlement also spares the city embarrassment of airing a series of blunders by the Fire Department.

Firefighters were apparently unaware of at least 10 calls to 911 reporting that people were trapped by stairwell doors that locked behind them. They also concentrated on fire suppression and ignored search and rescue until 90 minutes after arriving on the scene.



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