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Man tells how wife fled from Loop fire
Hearings resume after 2 months

Thursday, May 20, 2004
Chicago Tribune
by Jon Yates

As she regained consciousness in the intensive care unit, fire victim Karen Griffin asked her husband, Gene, if anyone had died in the Oct. 17 blaze at the Cook County Administration Building.

"Yes," Gene told her. "Six people died."

Karen Griffin began crying. The 41-year-old had fled down the building's southeast stairwell when an evacuation was ordered, then was sent back up before she got outside. Locked stairwell doors trapped her inside, and the thickening smoke nearly took her life.

"But we did what they told us to," she told her husband at the hospital.

The scene recalled Wednesday by Gene Griffin marked the first public testimony in almost two months before the county-appointed commission investigating the fire.

More public hearings are expected in June, just as several groups, including the county panel headed by former U.S. Appellate Judge Abner Mikva, are scheduled to wrap up their reports on the blaze.

At Wednesday's hearing, the panel heard from industry experts who described the importance of sprinklers and unlocking doors.

Michael LaMont, director of the county's Office of Capital Planning and Policy, described how his office had received requests in 2002 and last year for sprinklers to be installed in the building at 69 W. Washington St.

Both times, LaMont said, the requests from the building's management company were given a low priority, because the company said the lack of sprinklers did not violate city codes.

The requests were rejected, LaMont said, in favor of other capital projects that were considered more important.

Since the October fire, the County Board has approved a $10 million sprinkler project for the 37-story building. LaMont said that project is 80 percent complete. The county is installing a new fire alarm system, and it has replaced the stairwell doors with doors that automatically unlock if a fire is detected, he said.

Six people were killed from smoke inhalation after becoming trapped in the southeast stairwell. The building was not equipped with sprinklers, and the stairwell doors locked upon shutting, creating a trap for those who tried to escape, including Karen Griffin.

In a statement read by her husband, Griffin said she left her office on the 27th floor and fled down the southeast stairs after hearing the evacuation order, but she was sent back up at the 12th floor along with others.

Griffin said that she thought the person telling the group to go back up was a firefighter, but she did not see him.

Griffin's statement corroborates testimony from earlier witnesses who said firefighters sent them back up the stairs, which soon filled with smoke. No firefighter has admitted telling the evacuees to turn around.

Attorneys for the panel said they plan to resume hearings in mid-June with testimony from the commission's forensic experts. Mikva said the "opportunity is open" for former Fire Commissioner James Joyce to testify, but he said no such testimony has been scheduled.

The panel expects to complete its final report within two months.



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