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Desperate 911 calls 'went into a black hole'
WHO'S TO BLAME? | Survivors may be forced to relive horrors of deadly county building fire if civil suits go to trial next month

Sunday, March 30, 2008
Special to

The sobbing starts at the mere mention of that fateful Friday afternoon. The guilt-driven nightmares never end about the co-worker left behind in that smoke-filled stairwell.

Meribeth Mermall will soon be forced to relive the agony of the fire at the Cook County Administration Building, 69 W. Washington, in October 2003.

Barring a last-minute settlement, a trial is scheduled to begin April 14 to determine who was to blame for turning a "typical office fire" in a single suite into a smoky inferno that killed six people and injured 16 others.

The victims were ordered to evacuate the building, but they were trapped in smoke-filled stairwells when doors locked behind them. There was a 90-minute gap between the time firefighters arrived on the scene and the time the victims' bodies were found. The Chicago Fire Department waited until the fire was extinguished to do a top-to-bottom stairway search.

'Laying it all raw again'

The tragedy changed Chicago's fire code and high-rise firefighting tactics.

Defendants in the first seven of 21 lawsuits touched off by the fire include the city, the building's management company, two security firms hired to staff the front desk and the supplier of emergency phones in the stairway that failed to work that day.

For Mermall, the legal finger-pointing that could determine who pays millions of dollars in settlements matters little. What's important is that she'll be dragged through it all over again.

"It's like laying it all raw again. It's the most difficult thing I've ever had to do to have to relive this when I'm trying to find a normal existence," said Mermall, legislative liaison for the Cook County state's attorney's office.

Mermall recalled the horror of having gone down the stairs, only to turn back because the smoke was too thick. She was part of a small group lucky enough to get out of that stairwell -- only because a door on the 27th floor didn't close all the way.

"Smoke was roiling in along the ceiling. An announcement was made to evacuate using the stairs we had just gotten out of. We said to each other, 'They don't even know we're here,' " Mermall said.

"I had to call my husband to tell him to take care of the children. Michael said to me, 'Find a huge object to get ready to break a window if things get really bad.' I was looking around trying to figure out what I could lift."

'Oh, God. No'

Mermall said not a day goes by when she isn't overcome with guilt about the custodian she passed on her way back up the choking stairwell.

When Mermall last saw her, Teresa Zajac was muttering in Polish while frantically fumbling for a key that would open the stairwell door on the 20th floor.

"I have tremendous regrets over not having helped Teresa. I saw her in the stairs. She was struggling with the keys, and I was thinking about all of us getting out. I didn't think about the fact that she would not be able to understand English. If only I had just signaled her to come up," Mermall said.

Christine Konopka, an administrative assistant to Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine, is equally guilt-ridden about the voice she heard, saying, "Oh, God. No," on her way back up the stairs.

"When I heard that voice, I was thinking, 'Do I have enough air? Can I go down and get that person?' I had to make a decision to either go back and try to find that person or get myself out and tell them there were people in the stairwell. That was the decision I made. But how do you know?" said Konopka, who may be called to testify, even though she's not a plaintiff in Round One.

City has immunity

Asked whom he holds responsible for the disaster, plaintiffs' attorney Bob Clifford said, "This is like a domino game. ... If not for this event, that wouldn't have happened. It was a cascade of missed opportunities to prevent a tragedy."

The trial is expected to be an emotional replay of post-fire hearings that aired a series of Fire Department blunders.

Concentrating on fire suppression and ignoring search and rescue was just one of the mistakes. The others included opening the door leading to the southeast stairwell on the 12th floor where the fire started and failing to follow up on two reports that Zajac was missing.

A heavyset firefighter also acknowledged that he aborted a search of the smoky stairwell after running out of oxygen, retreated to the 11th and 9th floors to get fresh air bottles, then returned to the first floor to be treated by paramedics while his crew waited.

The Mikva Commission concluded that frantic 911 calls from people trapped inside the building "went into a black hole" of communications breakdowns so severe that firefighters sent fleeing employees back up a smoke-filled stairwell, possibly to their deaths. Firefighters were apparently unaware of "at least 10" calls to 911 reporting that people were trapped by stairwell doors that locked behind them, the commission said.

First Deputy Corporation Counsel Karen Seimetz said the city is "making a good-faith effort" to reach a settlement and avoid a potentially messy trial that would air gut-wrenching 911 calls all over again.

But Seimetz said the city is not afraid of a trial because it has "tort immunity" from claims based on negligence.

"Fire experts will tell you that mistakes are made in every fire. ... The issue in this case is whether firefighters acted with conscious disregard for the safety of people trapped in the stairwell or whether OEMC acted with conscious disregard in the information it gave to the Fire Department," she said.

'Willful and wanton conduct'

Attorney Dan Kotin said he plans to call former Fire Commissioner James Joyce, whose retirement was hastened by the 69 W. Washington fiasco, to meet that higher standard of proof.

Joyce was personally informed that employees were "trapped in stairwells" more than 80 minutes before the victims' bodies were found. But he failed to order a top-to-bottom stairway search.

The former commissioner was also heard on tape as telling an underling, "Well, fortunately, it's 5 o'clock on a Friday at a government office building."

"If ever there has been evidence of willful and wanton conduct, it's in this case because of all the evidence that exists, which we believe leads to a finding of conscious disregard for safety," Kotin said.

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