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Why Did 6 People Die?

Monday, October 20, 2003
Chicago Tribune
Letter to the Editor

The loss of six lives after a fire in a Loop high-rise owned by Cook County elicits deep regrets -- for the victims, for their families, and for the children, the elderly and the other clients of county government whom several of the victims served.

The tragedy also prompts two questions: Exactly what happened in the chaos of the moment to lead to the deaths of these six people? What must be done so the next fire in a Chicago high-rise doesn't exact similar casualties?

These questions should be asked and answered with great care. It's very rare in the immediacy of any tragedy to know exactly what happened and to discern who, if anyone, is to blame.

The confusion in this case is considerable. Questions about the remodeling, safety and operation of the structure have surfaced. So have criticisms of the way some Chicago firefighters allegedly directed people inside limited-access stairwells as they tried to flee the building.

Those questions look backward. Equally important are questions that look forward. What protocols should building managers, security officers and tenants follow in the event of an emergency? Who, under what circumstances, should order an evacuation? And in these security-conscious times, have we laid traps--by, for example, equipping stairwell doors with hardware that allows them to be opened only from one side -- that can keep people from fleeing safely?

Chicago is the home of the skyscraper. It is also a city that has experienced a boom in the construction of high-rise condominiums and the conversion of tall buildings to condo use. The net effect is that this city has never had so many people working and living on floors higher than firefighters easily can reach with robust streams of water in case of a fire.

Friday's tragedy should prompt a thorough review of building codes, fire regulations and recommended procedures for high-rise emergencies. Some of those questions may fall to city, state and federal authorities. And while the Cook County Board isn't an investigative agency, its members should loudly insist that a truly independent commission -- with none of the usual crowd of clout-heavy contributors and pals -- provide hard answers.

That would be a service to Chicago. That would be a tribute to Teresa Zajac, Felice Lichaw, Janet Grant, Maureen McDonald, Sara White Chapman and John Slater III, the people who died while serving the public last Friday.

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