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Fire victims' families demand sprinkler law

Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
by FRAN SPIELMAN

Relatives of those who died in last year's Loop high-rise fire pointed the legal finger of blame at the city and county on Tuesday and warned of a messy trial that would air Chicago Fire Department blunders unless the City Council approves a stalled sprinkler ordinance.

Although financial settlements will be discussed, attorney Robert Clifford warned that money alone will not be enough to settle the claims of the victims' families in a process, he hopes, that will begin with mediation.

What the loved ones want is a safety net that aldermen have so far been unwilling to provide: a controversial requirement that pre-1975 high-rises be retrofitted with sprinklers.

"We're not looking for any scapegoats here. We just don't want this to happen again," said Tom McDonald, whose sister Maureen was one of the people who died in the Oct. 17 fire at 69 W. Washington.

Noting that many of the victims worked for the public guardian's office, McDonald said, "The people who died in that fire had a certain mindset and the families have pretty much that same mindset.... These were people who were looking out for the good of other people. Money isn't the end all."

Victim's brother appalled

Jim Slater, whose brother John was one of the victims, said his family was "appalled" and "offended" to learn that sprinklers are not required in pre-1975 high-rises.

"My family wants what all of the families want -- for Chicago to be a safer place. That means passing a stringent fire sprinkler ordinance that retrofits all vintage high-rises -- not just commercial, but commercial and residential," Slater said.

"The Building Committee has had it for quite some time. There's been a lot of debate about it.... We're approaching the one-year anniversary of this fire and nothing's been done."

Buildings Committee Chairman Bernard Stone (50th) said he's not about to be bullied into approving a sprinkler ordinance by an attorney playing fast and loose with the facts.

"Where does he reach a direct causation between the deaths and sprinklers? The direct cause of their deaths was smoke. The direct cause was a failure to communicate and the fact they were locked in a smoke chamber. None of those things has anything to do with sprinklers. If you're going to make a bluff, at least base it on facts. He's so far out of line, its ridiculous," he said.

The chairman ruled out requiring sprinklers in residential high-rises. "I would get hung if I did it. The people who have to pay for it don't want it. They can't afford it."

Stone said he's been prepared for months to approve Mayor Daley's weaker version exempting residential buildings and giving commercial buildings until 2016 to comply. But he's not about to go along with the mayor's plan to allow "bare wires" to be used to install fire alarm notification and fire detection systems, instead of running those wires through a metal conduit.

Six people died at the Cook County Administration Building, which was not retrofitted with sprinklers. The victims were ordered to evacuate the building but were trapped in smoke-filled stairwells by doors that locked behind them.

Within weeks of the tragedy, lawsuits were filed against the management and security companies. On Tuesday, armed with evidence laid out by the Mikva Commission, attorneys amended their suit to include the city and county.

Preview of a messy trial

The bill of particulars against the Chicago Fire Department was the same as it's been since Day One -- everything from failing to conduct a top-to-bottom stairway search and seize control of the building's public address system to communications breakdowns so severe that 911 calls from trapped victims were either ignored or never relayed to rescuers who could have done something about it.

To preview what a messy trial would be like, attorneys outlined all of the Fire Department's general orders that were ignored that day. They also replayed tapes of gut-wrenching 911 calls from victims pleading for help while gasping for air, interspersed with television clips from that night that featured Fire Department personnel making misstatements. The Fire Department even called a TV station to complain that a reporter's use of the word "trapped" was too strong a word to use.



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