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Madigan Should Launch Fire Probe

Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Chicago Tribune

Six people lie dead, victims of a fire in a Loop high-rise. Their survivors clamor for answers. Owners of other Chicago high-rises are confused; there is, it seems, no failsafe book of best practices for instructing occupants on what to do in an emergency. No one has adequately explained what occurred as firefighters battled the blaze and occupants struggled to flee. Calls for an independent investigation have echoed through the city.

And yet, five days after the fire, there is no independent investigation. There is only the pledge of John Stroger, president of the Cook County Board, that he will talk with Mayor Richard Daley about forming an investigative panel. Stroger voiced a preference for "individuals who have some knowledge of the situation" and who can be "objective in their findings."

Come again? Stroger says he and Daley should choose who will investigate the county officials who oversee county property? The politically connected business executives whom the county hired to manage the building? The efficacy of the city's own building code? And the conduct of city firefighters?

No. Stroger may mean well, but his and Daley's conflicts of interest are numerous.

Unraveling Friday's tragedy is an extraordinary challenge that someone of stature should step forward to initiate. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has not taken that step. Instead he inexplicably has sidestepped, suggesting through a spokesperson that he'll not get involved.

Similarly, the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal, which has broad authority to supervise fire investigations, has taken a posture that can generously be described as low profile. In a mealy-mouthed press release Tuesday, the fire marshal's office said it "does not comment on pending investigations and defers comment to the local municipalities on the issue surrounding the investigation." Whatever that means. A spokesperson did not return repeated calls.

What's desperately needed is for someone to create the structure for a thorough and public investigation -- of the county's outfitting of the building in the 1990s, of the fire precautions building managers did or didn't take, of the city's building code, of the fire department's response Friday, of emergency procedures that, it appears, failed badly.

The point isn't to find someone to blame or prosecute; it's unlikely any criminal intent preceded Friday's deaths. But a thorough investigation unequivocally would benefit the hundreds of thousands of citizens who work in, live in or routinely visit the hundreds of other high-rise structures in Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois.

Given that neither the governor nor the state fire marshal has acted with boldness and authority, the job logically falls to the state's top legal officer, Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan.

The Tribune today urges that Madigan convene a panel chaired by someone of impeccable honesty to explore what occurred before and during Friday's tragedy -- and to suggest ways to keep future high-rise emergencies from becoming similarly deadly.

Such a panel could bring together experienced investigators from the fire protection and insurance industries, specialists in modern building codes and design, and perhaps investigators from an outside agency such as the Illinois State Police. One candidate to chair such an inquiry: former U.S. Atty. Scott Lassar, who as a prosecutor demonstrated immense talent for synthesizing mountains of raw investigative findings.

Madigan and Lassar would be the first to say that they are not experts in high-rise emergencies. Far more important, they are people who have demonstrated independence and integrity. If Madigan will convene an investigation, the hope here is that someone of Lassar's stature, skill and character will agree to direct it.

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