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Daley Backs Sprinkler Bill
Mayor supports retrofitting high-rises; Blagojevich announces own probe

Friday, October 24, 2003
Chicago Tribune

Mayor Richard Daley voiced support Thursday for mandatory installation of sprinklers in Chicago's older high-rises, putting weight behind a proposal being drafted by Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

Daley seemed to go beyond remarks he made a few days after the deadly Oct. 17 fire at the Cook County-owned administration building at 69 W. Washington St. when he said only that he would consider such a requirement.

"I have no problems with that," the mayor said Thursday of Burke's sprinkler ordinance, which is modeled after a measure proposed recently in New York. "I think there will be a number of changes" in the wake of the tragic blaze.

Meanwhile, a panel named Thursday by Cook County Board President John Stroger to conduct an independent investigation into the fire was undercut by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who abruptly called it inadequate and reversed a hands-off approach by appointing a former Clinton administration official to conduct a state-sponsored probe.

Under current city code, only high-rises constructed after 1975 must be equipped with sprinklers.

"I think it is fantastic," Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, said of Daley's comments. "I think the mayor in his heart knows that this has to be done."

But Daley has flirted with the idea of sprinklers before after fatal fires in tall buildings, only to take no action because of cost.

In the days after a 1999 fire that killed two residents of a 39-story condominium building on Sheridan Road, for example, he raised the prospect of a new installation requirement.

But none of the previous fires had the public impact of the one last week in the heart of the Loop, and there appeared to be new momentum for action.

Ald. Bernard Stone (50th), chairman of the council's Buildings Department and a longtime critic of the expense and effectiveness of sprinklers, said Thursday he would support Burke's retrofit measure under certain conditions.

A 1999 study by the Chicago High-Rise Safety Commission estimated the city had up to 1,000 older high-rises not now required to have sprinklers. High-rises are defined as buildings over 80 feet -- typically seven stories -- high.

The commission, formed after a South Side fire that killed four and injured 40, put the cost of sprinkler installation in 1999 at between $1.50 and $4.75 a square foot. For an 800,000 square-foot office building, that translated to a range of $1.2 million to $3.8 million. The expense of retrofitting older high-rises is "a valid question," and the length of time that property owners should be given to comply with an installation requirement remains to be determined, Daley said.

Burke noted a sprinkler proposal he made a decade ago after the World Trade Center bombing in New York went nowhere. But, "with the deaths of these six people, the time has come to raise the issue again," he asserted.

Burke said he planned to introduce his proposal at a Nov. 5 City Council meeting. It would apply to older high-rises citywide, not just in the Loop, but the alderman said he was unsure whether it should take in residential as well as commercial high-rises.

People who live in condo high-rises are facing financial pressures from rising property taxes and increasing maintenance costs, and "absolutely cannot afford the load" of a new sprinkler requirement, Stone said.

Exempting residential properties would be a mistake, Lia asserted.

"Regardless of this fire at 69 W. Washington, 82 percent of fire deaths occur in a residential setting. The most severe danger is in residences, and most of the people die at night, in their own home, in their own apartment."

Stroger's five-member investigative team, chaired by former federal appellate court justice and one-time White House counsel Abner Mikva, is to investigate all aspects of the fire and make recommendations for improving safety in the building and, perhaps, other high-rises.

The other members are: William Cousins Jr., a former state appellate judge; Earl Strayhorn, a retired Cook County judge; Jennifer Nijman, an environmental lawyer and immediate past president of the Chicago Bar Association; and David A. de Vries, a fire protection engineer and the chairman of the National Fire Protection Association's Technical Committee on Means of Egress.

Mikva said the goal of the inquiry is not to find "scapegoats" but to point out problems in firefighting protocols or safety measures that could have contributed to the tragedy.

That approach, charged Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, would undercut the validity of the probe. The panel, he said, should be given subpoena power, a large staff and a mandate to examine why the county failed to install common safety features in the building after buying it for $40 million in 1996 and then paying for $22 million in renovations.

Murphy suggested one line of questioning: "Was an inordinate amount of money spent to line the pockets" of political friends? "Any inquiry that does not go back to 1996 and have subpoena power is not worth a jar of warm spit," Murphy said.

Mikva said he plans to gather his panel for an initial meeting early next week. He didn't have a timeline for how long the probe might take but said there's an "urgency" to find problems and make changes.

Stroger pledged to give the commission as much money as it needs to hire experts and carry out its investigation.

But even before Stroger publicly announced his investigative team, Blagojevich said its members lacked the expertise to do a thorough job. He said he was naming a former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Lee Witt, to investigate the fire and make recommendations to prevent future disasters.

"I'm not satisfied that enough substantive expertise has been brought in to find out what went wrong and make sure it never happens again," Blagojevich said.

Witt will review existing codes, rescue efforts and evacuation procedures and make recommendations for statewide changes -- an investigative scope that, like the county panel's, falls short of what Murphy wants.

Blagojevich's move was the latest in an evolving set of stances for the governor, who has come under increasing criticism from Murphy and some other public officials for his initial reluctance to get involved.

He softened that slightly on Wednesday, declaring that he would intervene only if he felt the panel Stroger was about to announce was not truly independent. On Thursday, after getting word of whom Stroger was going to appoint, Blagojevich said it was important to get someone of Witt's caliber involved.

In a telephone interview, Witt said he first spoke to the governor Thursday morning, but that he had had discussions about getting involved earlier in the week with David Wilhelm, a political consultant who oversaw Blagojevich's campaign last year.

Witt headed FEMA from 1993 through 2001 and oversaw the agency's response to more than 300 disasters, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Also on Thursday, plaintiffs' lawyers who have filed lawsuits got their first look inside the building with their experts. Kevin Durkin, one of the lawyers, said the fire damage was in a limited area on the 12th floor.

They saw where a light fixture had been removed, replaced by an evidence tag. Fire investigators have said they suspect electrical wiring in a light fixture may have been the cause of the blaze.

"This was a localized fire and it's really incomprehensible to me that we have people who worked on the 19th floor and above who were injured and killed," Durkin said.

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