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Report Says Human Started Loop Fire
Accident or Arson Not Yet Determined

Wednesday, December 31, 2003
Chicago Tribune
by Jeff Coen and Jon Yates

Fire Department investigators have concluded that the fatal Oct. 17 fire in a Loop high-rise was started by a person, not faulty wiring in a light fixture, and was fueled by gasoline, sources said Tuesday.

The probe by the department's Office of Fire Investigation has determined the blaze at the Cook County Administration Building was "incendiary," sources said. A criminal investigation by Chicago police and prosecutors continues to determine if the fire was an accident or intentionally set.

Six county workers died in the building at 69 W. Washington St. when they were trapped in a locked, smoky stairwell after being ordered to evacuate the building.

The investigation initially focused on light fixtures in the 12th floor storage room where the fire started, but testing was inconclusive. Earlier this month, the state crime lab found traces of gasoline on a piece of debris taken from the same area as the suspect light fixtures.

The Fire Department's report was originally scheduled to be completed the week before Christmas, but was delayed for unknown reasons.

Fire Department spokeswoman Molly Sullivan said Tuesday she did not know the status of the investigation into the cause of the fire.

"I have no idea what's in the report," Sullivan said. "I have not seen it."

Sullivan said that if the report does conclude the fire was "incendiary" in nature, that does not necessarily mean the fire was arson, only that it was manmade.

"Whether it is deliberately set or accidentally set is another matter," Sullivan said.

The Fire Department is responsible for determining the cause and origin of the fire, Sullivan said. That information is sent to Chicago police, where members of the bomb and arson unit determine if a fire was arson.

Police Supt. Philip J. Cline said Tuesday afternoon that police were still waiting for a finding from the Fire Department about the cause of the fire. Through a spokesman, he declined to elaborate Tuesday evening when asked about the Fire Department's report.

Police would say only that they have been looking at all possibilities since the traces of gasoline were found.

"Our goal is to get at what took place," police spokesman David Bayless said. "That's what bomb and arson [investigators] and Area Four [Harrison Area] investigators are looking into."

Police investigators and members of the Cook County state's attorney's office began re-interviewing workers who might have had access to the storage room after the gasoline was detected.

Prosecutors have not ruled out calling a grand jury in the criminal probe, but State's Atty. Richard Devine said earlier this month he would not do so hastily.

Devine, who narrowly escaped from the stairwell where the six died, said he would follow all leads to determine why gasoline was in the storage room.

"Our office can only institute an investigation if we have a reasonable basis for believing that there has been criminal activity, and we have to be careful about that," Devine said earlier this month after testifying before a county-appointed commission headed by Abner Mikva.

After the gasoline was discovered, experts said it could have been the byproduct of other materials burning or could have been the result of cross-contamination, tracked to the scene by an employee or firefighter. That idea has now been dismissed, sources said.

Investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives initially looked into the blaze, and took dozens of pieces of evidence from the building. But within days, ATF officials determined the fire was not intentionally set and released the materials.

The county commission hearings, being chaired by Mikva, a former federal judge, are scheduled to continue in January.

Devine has vowed to support the use of subpoenas should the group find "unresponsive" witnesses.

Another group of investigators, appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, is led by James Lee Witt, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency director. That group is surveying the 2,300 employees who worked in the 37-story building about safety precautions, including fire drills, and what employees did after the blaze began.

Last month, the city's Office of Emergency Management said its investigation had found that missteps by both the Fire Department and the private managers of the building contributed to the victims' deaths. Trouble spots included firefighters who might have sent fleeing workers back up a smoky stairwell where exit doors were locked and the "unnecessary" order to evacuate the entire high-rise by building management. At least 17 personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits have been filed.

The high-rise was built before sprinklers were required and was purchased by Cook County in 1996. The county spent millions of dollars on renovations but did not add sprinklers. Sprinklers are now being installed.

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