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Lawyer Died in Bid to Save Co-Workers

Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Chicago Sun-Times
by Annie Sweeney ,Abdon M. Pallasch

One of the last things John Slater apparently did before he died in a locked and smoky stairwell in last week's Loop high-rise fire was reach for a manual to see how to lead his co-workers to safety.

"If necessary to leave the building -- do not use elevators -- use the emergency stairwells and close all doors behind you," read the instructions in the case of a fire.

That's apparently what Slater -- an attorney for the Public Guardian's office -- and several other people did when the blaze broke out at 5 p.m. Friday.

But the intensely hot blaze sent waves of smoke through the stairwell, and the doors leading to fresh air had automatically locked, trapping Slater and the others.

Some two hours later, they were found in the stairwell near the 20th floor.

Slater's co-workers in the Cook County Public Guardian's office found the manual on Slater's desk when they returned to the office this week to collect his belongings.

"John was a detail guy and this was the way he would have acted," said Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, who attended Slater's wake Tuesday night. "Pull out the plan and make sure he was following it. That doesn't surprise me at all.''

Cook County Board President John Stroger promised an independent investigation Tuesday as the County Board met for the first time since the tragedy. Some board members demanded sprinklers be installed in the building "no matter what the cost" and others demanded the locked stairwell doors be opened. The first lawsuits were filed Tuesday against the building's management company.

The Chicago Fire Department has begun an internal review of the search of the building, in part because of an apparent 90-minute gap between a 911 call for help from the stairwell and the discovery of the bodies. Fire Commissioner James Joyce has said efforts to find victims began as soon as emergency personnel arrived and continued throughout the fire.

But the evacuation procedures at the building have also become a key question.

Witnesses have said the initial instructions after the fire broke out just after 5 p.m. were to evacuate the 12th floor. Later, a voice on a PA system ordered the entire building vacated and instructed tenants not to take elevators -- which seems in compliance with the management company's policy.

But the stairwells were not pressurized and smoke from the fire rose floor by floor. People frantically tried to escape the stairwell but every door was locked until they reached the 27th floor. Slater never made it that far.

"It approaches criminal negligence on the management," said Murphy. "They had to know they did not have a pressurized staircase."

A pressurized staircase would have prevented smoke from filling the area. Owners have also been criticized for not spending as little as $1.5 million on a sprinkler system that would have quickly doused the blaze.

69 W. Washington management is a joint venture of U.S. Equities Realty and East Lake Management Inc., owned by Elzie Higginbottom, a close ally and political donor to Stroger and Mayor Daley. Stroger took offense at a question Tuesday about whether he would appoint a truly independent investigator, given his relationship with Higginbottom.

"I don't think Mr. Higginbottom has done any more for me than many citizens have done," Stroger said. Then, standing up, he said, "Don't ask those type of questions. We are going to go independent and we want to find out what the concerns were and I don't care who's affected, OK?"

Commissioner Earlean Collins said of Stroger's investigation, "I truly, truly hope that it will include, no matter what the cost, putting sprinklers in the building."

Commissioner Carl Hansen took reporters for a demonstration of the locking doors outside the Cook County Board Chambers Tuesday: "Go out there and try to get back in. Go on. Try it. I've been complaining about this for eight years. You still have the problem right here, right now, that caused the problems at 69 W. Washington. This is what the people were doing, struggling to get back in."

Hansen, Stroger and other Cook County officials praised the work ethic of county employees who were still working past 5 p.m. on a Friday even though county workers are sometimes criticized for working short hours.

Addressing the hundred-or-so department heads and middle managers who attend county board meetings, Commissioner Larry Suffredin said, "I know that so many of you here work in that building and the one thing we can say to all of you is that your lives and protections and those of the public are precious to us and we will take all reasonable steps to make sure that that building is re-opened and that you and the public feel confidence in returning to that building."

The lawsuits filed Tuesday against the management company leave open the possibility of naming city, fire and county officials later.

Earlier in the day, the company issued a statement saying that all "life safety systems in the building were in compliance with code and functioning," and officials could not be reached for further comment regarding the instructions. Company officials could not be reached about the emergency manual.

Slater would have referred to it because he was in charge of evacuating 30 to 40 employees of the public guardian's office assigned to the 19th floor, Murphy said.



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