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Stroger Shifts Gears, Plans Outside Probe of Fire

Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Special to
by Mickey Ciokajlo ,John Biemer

After vocal calls by some public officials for an outside investigation into Friday's Loop high-rise fire that killed six people, Cook County Board President John Stroger changed his position Tuesday and said he would appoint an independent panel to analyze all aspects of the tragedy.

Meanwhile, the fire has prompted building managers across downtown Chicago to issue memos and e-mails reminding tenants about evacuation procedures, while high-rise office workers are taking a fresh look at how they would escape during a fire.

Stroger and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley on Monday had both said they were not opposed to an outside investigation of the fire at the county-owned building, but neither went so far as to call for one.

But Tuesday, two days after forceful appeals by Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine and county Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, Stroger said he would consult with Daley and appoint an outside panel to investigate.

"What we want to do is come up with some idea of what we need to do to make certain that this type of situation never occurs again," Stroger told reporters after a brief County Board meeting Tuesday. "An independent investigation should look at every aspect from the time the call was made until we put the fire out."

Stroger, however, became defensive when asked whether he could be counted on to appoint an independent panel when Elzie Higginbottom, the Illinois Gaming Board chairman who also runs a company that co-manages the building, is one of his generous political donors.

"I don't think Mr. Higginbottom has done any more for me than many citizens in this county. I'm surprised you haven't given me anything," Stroger snapped at a reporter. "Don't ask those type of questions. We are going to go independent and we want to find out what the concern was and I don't care who's affected."

Robert Wislow, whose company jointly manages the building at 69 W. Washington St. with Higginbottom's firm, also has close political ties to Daley and Stroger.

Stroger did not say when the panel would be created or how long an investigation might take. Murphy, who lost three employees in the fire, had previously called on Gov. Rod Blagojevich to appoint an outside panel free of political taint, but the governor has declined to get involved.

"An independent investigation that is not properly structured will cause us more problems than it will solve," county Commissioner Larry Suffredin said. "And I think [Stroger] has to be conscious of that and I think he will be."

On Tuesday, the first two lawsuits were filed in Cook County Circuit Court, both accusing the firms headed by Wislow and Higginbottom of negligence. Neither suit named the county or the city as defendants, although they could be added later, said lawyer Daniel Kotin, who filed on behalf of the estate of Felice Lichaw, a clinical professional counselor who died in the fire.

The management venture issued a statement Tuesday expressing its "sincere condolences and sympathy" to the families of the dead and to the injured. "Our initial internal assessment indicates that all life safety systems in the building were in compliance with code and functioning," the statement said.

Questions have been raised about why the county, which bought the 35-story building in 1996 and has added $22 million in renovations, hadn't installed safety features such as sprinklers, pressurized stairwells or mechanisms to remotely unlock the stairwell doors.

The six who died were found in a stairwell around the 22nd floor. Survivors who were in the stairwell have told stories of people frantically trying to open the doors after firefighters apparently ordered them back up the steps and after the smoke became too thick.

The bodies were not found until at least 90 minutes after the fire started on the 12th floor. The city said it is conducting its own internal review about the Fire Department's response and performance on the scene, which could take several days.

In interviews Tuesday, many downtown workers already were well aware if their buildings had sprinkler systems, and whether doors in the stairwells remained locked or opened up when an alarm sounded. Many said their buildings have been well organized, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, regularly holding fire drills and meeting with fire officials.

Darin Pennock, 38, who works in the Wrigley Building, said last week's fire doesn't worry him much. "It's kind of one of those necessary risks that you take when you work in a high-rise," he said. "That doesn't scare me any more than crossing Michigan Avenue."

But some workers don't understand the benefit of those organized plans and fire drills, like Jay Holman, 28, a temporary worker at a mortgage company on the fifth floor of the Merchandise Mart. Holman said he has avoided taking jobs at the top of tall buildings ever since Sept. 11.

"I don't think people really worry about it till it happens," he said. "And by then it's like every man for himself. I'll meet you at the bottom."

Said Melissa March, 26, a paralegal for a Loop law firm: "If they told me to stay put, I would leave. I don't care. If there's fire, I'm out of there. The World Trade Center is the perfect example of what happens when they say not to evacuate."


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