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Three Duties for the Fire Probers

Sunday, October 26, 2003
Chicago Tribune

In the grim wake of an Oct. 17 fire that took six lives in a Loop high-rise owned by Cook County, several government officials who should have voiced immediate demands for sweeping investigations instead have spent much of their time running for political cover.

Finally, six days after the fire, John Stroger, president of the Cook County Board, named an investigative panel led by former federal appellate justice Abner Mikva. That puts Mikva in charge of asking some tough questions about the county's stewardship of the high-rise. Stroger made a good choice; Mikva has a reputation for integrity and independence. But you also have to admire Stroger's luck. Not many of us get away with choosing who will investigate our decisions, as well as the performance of our subordinates and of the political contributors we've hired to manage valuable property for us.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich wasted no time declaring Stroger's panel lacking in expertise. Blagojevich countered by appointing James Lee Witt, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to direct a separate, state-sponsored probe of the case. This after Blagojevich spent several days ducking suggestions that, given the dire concerns a fire of this nature raises about the safety of high-rises statewide, he should launch an independent probe.

(All but invisible has been Illinois' state fire marshal, Peter Vina, who has broad statutory authority to conduct investigations. A spokesperson said last week that in this case Vina's office will leave the investigating to the Chicago Fire Department -- but has contributed a canine unit to assist. Great. The conduct of the fire department itself merits scrutiny, but rather than investigate, the state fire marshal deploys Fido.)

In sum, citizens are asked to trust that probes led by Mikva and Witt will be sufficiently independent to determine what went wrong -- as well as what steps might keep that from occurring in the next high-rise fire. That public trust will hinge on whether Mikva and Witt can get past the fact that several political careers are on the line and resolve some deeply troubling issues:

- Did Cook County cut corners and imperil safety when it renovated the building in the 1990s? And did the Stroger political donors who were under contract to manage the structure have the necessary safety precautions in place?

- Does Chicago's building code adequately protect people who work in, dwell in or visit high-rises? Or should building owners and managers be subject to tougher safety standards?

- Did Chicago firefighters properly balance the need to suppress the blaze with the safety of occupants attempting to flee via a stairwell?

- What protocol determines who asks building occupants to evacuate? And in this tragic case, did someone badly bungle that decision?

During the maddening void of public leadership early last week, the Tribune urged Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, Illinois' top legal officer, to launch an investigation. She considered such a move but demurred when Blagojevich acted.

So three huge responsibilities fall to Mikva and Witt:  the duties to determine why six people died, to suggest better safety protocols -- and to keep all the twitchy politicians very much at bay.


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