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City Releases Initial Review of Fatal Fire

Friday, October 24, 2003
Chicago Sun-Times

By Dave McKinney, Dan Rozek, Shamus Toomey, Fran Spielman, Annie Sweeney, Abdon Pallasch and Stefano Esposito

City emergency officials said Friday that they received reports of people trapped in a smoky stairwell within minutes of arriving on the scene of a fatal fire in a high-rise government building.

But they did not immediately answer questions about why some of the victims were not found for as long as 90 minutes after the fire began.

The city officials spoke during a news conference to reveal the initial results of the city's investigation into why six people died in the Oct. 17 fire at the Cook County administration building.

Possible communication problems at the scene were part of the city's investigation. Other issues under investigation include the building's lack of sprinklers, locked doors that prevented employees from escaping the smoky stairwell and the decision to evacuate the building.

"I wish I could stand here and tell you that every aspect of this event went as well as we liked. That is simply not the case," said Cortez Trotter, the city's emergency management director.

Trotter prepared a detailed timeline of the 911 calls the city received and the number of firefighters, fire trucks and ambulances sent to the scene.

He said firefighters arrived on the scene shortly before 5:10 p.m. Within 20 minutes, the 911 center received multiple calls of building employees trapped in a smoky stairwell.

The six victims weren't discovered until after the fire was brought under control and during the fire department's final top-to-bottom search, which began at 6:39 p.m.

Fire Commissioner James Joyce said a fire department's first responsibility at a high-rise blaze is to contain and extinguish the fire.

"A high-rise fire presents a very complicated and dangerous situation," he said. "Decisions are made rapidly due to fire conditions that change rapidly due to the nature of high rise construction."

The results of the initial investigation come a day after two of Illinois' top Democrats launched competing investigations into the fire.

Trying to quell an outcry over their five days of inaction, Gov. Blagojevich and Cook County Board President John Stroger launched separate probes Thursday into the Loop high-rise fire that killed six people.

Their uncoordinated responses to what went wrong in the Cook County Administration Building added a whole new question to the many mysteries surrounding last week's blaze: Who is really in charge of getting to the bottom of the tragedy?

"They are like Ernie, Bert and the Cookie Monster, these politicians," said Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, who lost three employees in the fire and had earlier condemned Blagojevich for lacking "backbone" and not getting involved in the fire's aftermath.

Blagojevich reversed himself Thursday by appointing the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Lee Witt, to investigate the blaze and the city's response. The governor explained his about-face by saying he lacked confidence in the technical backgrounds of the people Stroger impaneled for his own probe -- a group that includes three former judges, a fire protection expert and one of the city's top lawyers.

"I'm not satisfied enough substantive expertise has been brought in," Blagojevich said, describing Witt as "the world's top expert in investigating and dealing with tragedies of this kind."

Three hours after Blagojevich announced the hiring of Witt, Stroger unveiled his five-member panel that will be headed by Abner J. Mikva, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and a former White House counsel under President Bill Clinton. He and Witt served in the Clinton administration together.

Joining Mikva will be retired Judge William Cousins Jr., who worked on the probe into the E2 nightclub disaster; former Chicago Bar Association President Jennifer Nijman; former Judge Earl Strayhorn, and David A. de Vries, a fire safety expert based in Evanston.

Stroger said he doubted Blagojevich knew the makeup of the panel when he criticized it as inadequate. Stroger said he hadn't finalized the names until Thursday afternoon.

"I don't know why the governor would say what he said," Stroger told reporters. "I'm not going to second-guess the governor...I wouldn't have said anything about it if I were he, but I can't worry about that. I'm serious about that. I don't care what he says."

Stroger vouched for his choices and downplayed the need for fire-safety experience on the panel: "You don't need to know about fire safety to run a commission."

When asked what personal or political connections he has to the panel members, Stroger evaded the question, saying, "Cousins is black and I'm black. Strayhorn is black and I'm black. But [he is] not quite as black as Cousins and me because Strayhorn is a brown-skinned black."

Since the Oct. 17 blaze, questions have surfaced about why it took firefighters 90 minutes to find the victims even though they had called 911, why there were no sprinklers, why stairwell doors were locked and trapped fleeing workers, and who ordered an evacuation that forced people to their deaths in smoky stairwells.

Early in the week, as Blagojevich kept his distance, adviser David Wilhelm -- a former Clinton campaign manager -- urged that Witt probe the fire, a senior aide to the governor said.

A Clinton appointee, Witt headed FEMA from 1993 to 2001 and oversaw the response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as well as hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters.

The timing of Blagojevich's announcement was perplexing. Just the day before, he had issued a statement that seemed to reinforce his desire to stay out of the investigation unless convinced a county probe was not "proceeding in a thorough and professional manner."

"We didn't feel it was responsible to immediately rush into an investigation without knowing any information, knowing the details, knowing how the local communities were going to proceed. We felt it was important to get a sense of how it was going and, while that happened, prepare a contingency in the event we weren't satisfied," the governor explained.

"If I felt this independent panel...had enough expertise, we wouldn't be doing this," Blagojevich said.

Aides to the governor said it had not been determined how much Witt would be paid for his work, which will include a review of building and fire codes and rescue efforts during the fire.

Witt, whose probe is expected to last up to six months, told the Chicago Sun-Times he does not foresee any difficulty examining the fire alongside the county panel. "I think the important thing is the fact that whatever the County Board panel finds and what we look at, in conjunction with them, will be for the betterment for the whole state of Illinois."

Mostly silent on Witt, Murphy said the Stroger panel would not be "worth a jar of warm spit" unless it had a staff with subpoena power, the ability to put people under oath and the capability to see how county funds were spent on a 1996 rehab that did not include installation of sprinklers.

Mikva, chairman of the Stroger panel, said a determination would be made later on whether the commission needed special powers. "I have great hopes -- and I'm not naive -- that everyone here will be cooperative," he said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Daley said the city's internal investigation of what officials are calling an "information relay breakdown" at the scene of the fire will be wrapped up and announced today by the head of the city's 911 center.

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