Finally, she began asking questions.
Gene Griffin had been by his wife's side for days, waiting for her to awaken from heavy sedation.
Karen Griffin had been trapped for two hours inside a smoke-choked stairwell of the Cook County Administration Building, and her vocal chords were burned and her lungs were weak.
When she finally awoke, all she could do was scribble a note to her husband.
"Did anyone die?"
Yes, her husband replied, six people.
She began crying, then began another note.
"But we did what they told us to do."
Karen Griffin and other county employees had been desperately fleeing down flights of stairs but were ordered back up. Ordered, she believes, by a Chicago firefighter, according to an affidavit read by her husband Wednesday before a county commission investigating last October's fire.
Griffin admits she doesn't remember much from that day, but she does remember the banging noises as she approached the 12th floor -- where the fire began -- interrupted by the order to go back upstairs.
"Go where?" she said she replied. "Again, he called back out to 'go back up.' "
Up she went, the smoke getting thicker, until she tried using an emergency fire phone outside the door at the 20th floor.
"I picked it up, pressed the buttons, but no one answered," she stated in her affidavit. "All I heard was a tone.
"It became very quiet on the stairwell," she added. "I put my briefcase down, put my face in my coat, and I thought about my family. That's my last memory."
As his wife was clinging to life, Gene Griffin was frantically searching for her, telling half a dozen police and fire officials she was still inside.
They were to meet outside the Thompson Center, where he works, just after 5 p.m.
She never came.
He made calls home, walked around Daley Center Plaza, searching the crowds. He walked back to the Thompson Center, thinking maybe he'd just missed her, then back to Daley Center Plaza. He said he knew she was still inside, but each time he insisted, officials assured him everyone had made it out.
The building, they said, was empty. Griffin said none of those officers radioed to the firefighters inside, just in case.
Just before 7 p.m., he says he approached a man he now knows was Cortez Trotter, the new fire chief, and relayed his fears.
Trotter radioed for another officer, who began searching with Griffin. Around 7 p.m., he said, that officer took him under police tape and closer to the scene.
He was asked for a picture of his wife. A co-worker was asked what Karen was wearing that day.
Then she came out on a stretcher.
She was sedated for days, but she immediately remembered the fire, her husband testified. And she remembered that no firefighters ever came over the building intercom. Instead, they were told to avoid elevators and proceed down the stairs.
Members of the Mikva Commission were clearly moved by the testimony, recalling it later as they peppered a county official, Michael LaMont, with questions.
LaMont, who is in charge of all county buildings and presents capital improvement requests, said building manager Keith Thomas twice asked for sprinklers in the building, in 2002 and 2003. Neither request was granted because Thomas never indicated they were a priority -- even though two experts testified Wednesday sprinklers "absolutely" would have saved lives.
"They weren't identified as an imminent need," LaMont testified, pointing to city code that did not require sprinklers inside buildings built before 1975. A $12.5 million effort is now under way at the building to install sprinklers, new emergency doors and fire alarms.
Commission member Sheila Murphy chastised the lack of supervision LaMont kept over that building, relying exclusively on Thomas to produce safety reports.
"No one checked on what building management was doing?" she asked with surprise. "You were not checking whether safety measures were actually in place? You allowed them to police themselves?"
Chairman Abner Mikva said he expects to issue a report after one more hearing. "All kinds of pictures are coming clear," he said, though he added, "but some seem to be more of a mystery, too, including the cause of the fire."