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County fire tragedy could have been avoided

Monday, October 25, 2004
Chicago Tribune
by Robert A. Clifford

Chicago -- With all due respect to John Stroger, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners ("Editorial about fire unfair to Cook County," Voice of the people, Oct. 18), I must agree with the Tribune's Oct. 6 editorial "Chicago's next high-rise tragedy."

It was a sad day after reading the Mikva and Witt reports on the fire that killed six people a year ago at the Cook County Administration Building, but one must agree with the newspaper when it says, "The most troubling conclusion to be drawn from those reports is that not enough has been done to prevent something similar from happening again today."

Hundreds of hours examining the scene and listening to testimony of those who were there led to one lesson by these independent experts, as the paper pointed out: " . . . these six deaths didn't have to happen."

It is clear that many mistakes were made and much could have been done to have avoided the Oct. 17, 2003, tragedy. Certainly the fact that the county and the Chicago Fire Department have instituted some of the changes bespeaks to their courage to recognize just how wrong things were.

But too many relied upon an apparently inadequate fire code, a mangled communication system and inept building management and security companies.

Dozens of people barely escaped with their lives because they took their own initiatives to get out of the building, ignoring the very orders that were repeated over and over on the public address system throughout the evening to use the deadly stairwell. Those who had followed orders and collapsed in the smoky stairwell were not found for almost an hour and a half, and for many of them that was where they were found--slumped on the stairs, covered in soot, clutching cell phones or bags or their hands clasped in prayer. Some would not be revived.

Although that building has been retrofitted with sprinklers--a device that both investigatory commissions are convinced would have prevented the spread of this fire--many high-rises in Chicago do not have such protective measures. An ordinance that could correct this is stalled somewhere in City Council.

Some of the victims and their families are looking for justice. Certainly no one can bring back their loved ones or put them back to the places they were before the fire. But these families are also bonded together in a unique sense of commitment to assure that such a tragedy does not befall another person who lives or works in the city of Chicago. They want to see change, a sensible fire safety ordinance--including sprinklers in high-rises--that will make Chicago a model for other major cities across the country to emulate.

Certainly it would cost money, but what price does one put on the lives of those who thought they were safe, who thought they would be safely evacuated or who would be accounted for by rescuers in a timely manner?

Toward that end, when we filed lawsuits against the city and county in early October on behalf of a dozen victims, we suggested the appointment of a mediator so that a multifaceted solution could be designed so that all parties can come away with a sense of accomplishment, with a greater assurance of safety. The Tribune's brave stance in its Oct. 6 editorial should be applauded; instead, Stroger says that the paper took the meticulous findings of the investigatory commissions and "manipulate[d] them to meet its political agenda."

The fact is that until the time of the release of the Mikva and Witt reports, the county, through its officials' remarks, was, and apparently continues to be, in a state of denial regarding responsibility.

Ultimately it will take a jury's determination to demonstrate the impossibility of defending the actions and lack of pre-fire preparation by the city, the county and its politicized independent contractors.

 


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