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State finds 'willful' neglect in fire

Sunday, April 18, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

A six-month state probe into last fall's deadly Loop high-rise fire has found 16 safety violations by Cook County and the Chicago Fire Department that range from "willful" neglect to poor fire training and communications.

The most serious citation issued by the Labor Department accuses Cook County Board President John Stroger's administration of ignoring earlier employee concerns over locked stairwells at 69 W. Washington, where six people died last October after being trapped in smoke-filled stairwells.

"The employer failed to provide reasonable protection for all of its employees by neglecting to address employee's [sic] safety concerns over locked stairwell exits brought up during safety meetings," the agency wrote in its citation against the county, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times late Friday through a Freedom of Information request.
Cook County

Ignored employee safety concerns over locked stairwells before the fire.

Didn't ensure firewall in stairwell where bodies were found was airtight.

Did not inspect faulty smoke-clearing stairwell louvers since 1974.

Failed to develop emergency action plan and fire prevention plan.

Did not recognize the danger of evacuating workers through building lobby crowded by firefighters.

Chicago Fire Department

Failed to provide an adequate level of disaster-scene training.

Ignored its own procedures requiring the "senior fire official on the scene" to quarterback firefighting and rescue efforts.

Failed to set up adequate communications between firefighters at the Cook County Administration Building and the command van, which was relaying information about 911 calls from people trapped inside the building to firefighters on the scene.
SOURCE: Illinois Labor Department


In another blistering critique, Labor Department officials accused the Fire Department of failing to provide an adequate level of disaster scene training and ignoring its own procedures requiring the "senior fire official on the scene" to quarterback firefighting and rescue efforts.

The Labor Department also alleged that firefighters at the Cook County Administration Building failed to communicate with the command van, which was relaying information about 911 calls from people trapped inside the building to firefighters on the scene.

State officials revealed the nine citations against the county and seven citations against the city during a Thursday meeting that blindsided local officials. Only one citation -- the alleged failure to address the locked stairwells issue -- was deemed "willful," the most serious citation, carrying a maximum fine of up to $10,000. Almost all the other violations were deemed "serious."

Overall, the county would face a maximum $18,000 in fines and the city $9,000 if all the charges stand. Both have 15 days to respond.

"This thing came out of the clear blue," retiring Fire Commissioner James Joyce said, adding that neither he nor any senior staff member that he knew of had been formally interviewed by the Labor Department.

"Every agency must think they need a piece of this action. They're jumping on each other and jumping on us," Joyce said, insisting his department is "adequately covered" on all points the state raised and will refute the allegations.

Mayor Daley also said he had no knowledge of the investigation and scoffed at the charges Saturday. "We have a great fire department," he said.

Stroger disputed allegations that his administration was willfully negligent in addressing stairwell door concerns. County officials said no such employee complaints about locked stairwell doors ever were brought to their attention before the fire and dismissed that finding as "hearsay." Such locked doors were legal for security reasons, officials have said.

"As far as I know, we were in compliance," Stroger said.

However, Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, who lost three employees in the fire, said at least one of his employees has filed an affidavit with the Labor Department stating that tenant-evacuation team leaders expressed concern about the locked doors with building and fire officials several years ago.

Murphy praised the state investigation, saying, "The Labor Department report is right on. These folks ought to be commended. Obviously, they didn't let politics get in their way since the politicians didn't even know they were doing the report.''

A citation also was issued to the county for shoddy inspection and maintenance of stairwell louvers designed to keep smoke from the stairwells -- a system that state investigators said had not been inspected since 1974. They were tested after the fire, and they did not work.

However, lawyer Dan Boho, whose firm, Hinshaw & Culbertson, represents the building's management company, disputed that. He said an outside company was hired in November 2001 to check, lubricate and exercise all the louvers -- and paperwork to that effect was presented to a commission headed by former federal appellate Judge Abner Mikva that also has been investigating the fire.

The state faulted the county for not fixing "a number of unsealed wall penetrations for electrical conduits and pipes" that compromised the firewall on the building's southeast exit stairwell. Holes in a firewall could create drafts that would draw smoke upward. All of the bodies were found between the 21st and 22nd floors.

The county also violated federal workplace safety rules by failing to develop an emergency action plan and a fire prevention plan, and by providing no training on the evacuation of disabled workers, the agency contended. And in a final shot, the Labor Department cited the county for allegedly violating agency rules by not formally reporting the fire to the state "as soon as possible," along with the fact that there were fatalities.

Some senior officials under Stroger who were familiar with the complaint viewed that finding as a "joke," given the blanket media coverage the calamity generated.

Labor Department spokeswoman Stephanie Noble refused to comment directly on the specific allegations, which were lodged outside of an independent investigation launched by Gov. Blagojevich. She said the Labor Department was acting under authority granted by the state Safety Inspection and Education Act and the Health and Safety Act, which both require the agency to enforce federal workplace safety standards at government work sites.

"The fire was on Oct. 17. Our investigation commenced on Oct. 21 with the first interview," she said. "We immediately assigned two full-time investigators just to work on this case."

Stroger said he didn't know the Labor Department had a role in the tangled assortment of probes, ranging from county and city efforts to a $2 million study by former Clinton administration official James Witt, hired by Blagojevich.

"I can truly tell you the only investigations I'm aware that are going on is the one conducted by the Chicago Fire Department, the one conducted by the County of Cook with Judge Abner Mikva, and the one that Gov. Blagojevich is having," Stroger said. "Other than that, I was unaware of any other things. I can truly tell you no one has spoken to me."

Likewise, Joyce said the blitzkrieg of state citations came out of left field. He said he could remember only one other time -- but not the precise incident -- when the state Labor Department issued similar citations.

"They did not interview our employees," Joyce said of the Labor Department. "They must have sat back and listened to the two [investigating] commissions, requested some of our general orders and -- boom -- out of the clear blue sky, 'Here's your violations.' We said, 'What is this?' And they said, 'No more questions.' The meeting was cut off."

Bob Clifford, an attorney representing some victims, said he was not surprised by the citations.

Six months after the fire, state and county investigations -- and Clifford's own inspection of the building -- have made it "abundantly clear" that the fire was a "tragedy of errors" that could have been prevented, Clifford said.

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