Investigators Begin Looking at Cause for Chicago, Illinois High-Rise Fire

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CHICAGO (AP) -- A city official confirmed Tuesday that no one was killed in a stubborn fire that burned for 5 1/2 hours at a historic downtown skyscraper, but investigators were kept off the floor where the blaze began while engineers tested above and below to ensure it was structurally sound.

Firefighters were on the 29th floor Monday night as they fought the blaze, which sent at least 37 people to area hospitals, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. Everyone who was on the floor had been accounted for, and firefighters sealed it off afterward for safety's sake and to preserve evidence, Langford said.

The Art Deco-style building, the corporate headquarters of LaSalle Bank in the city's downtown Loop business district, was closed to the public Tuesday. Fire and police officials going above the first floor had to be decontaminated so they didn't track anything into the scene - a problem identified after a fatal high-rise fire in a county office building 14 months ago that killed six people, Langford said.

``We're going to do this very carefully and by the book,'' Langford said. ``We're going through extreme measures.''

Several streets around the building were closed, but workers in nearby buildings affected could still enter their workplaces through doors on open streets, said Ron Huberman, director of the city's Office of Emergency Management.

More than 300 firefighters battled the blaze, which sent flames belching from the building's upper-story windows. Firefighters shot water into the windows, sometimes standing on the wedding cake-like tiers of the building to get better access.

Of the 37 people injured, 22 were firefighters in moderate to serious condition, Langford said. Most were being treated for smoke inhalation or minor injuries, officials said.

For firefighters, it was the first test since last year's Cook County Administration Building fire that killed six.

Office workers who escaped Monday's blaze in the 43-story building described firefighters escorting them through blinding smoke to safety.

Bob Bailey, a partner in a commercial real estate law firm on the building's 39th floor, said he had to keep his head outside a window or near the ground because of the smoke until firefighters came and led him down an elevator.

``We had our windows open in the office and I had to put my coat on the door, so that smoke wouldn't start rolling in,'' he said. ``And for a while, we weren't sure we were going to make it.''

The fire on the 29th floor of 135 S. LaSalle Street was reported about 6:30 p.m. and extinguished about midnight. Thick black smoke poured out of windows, and metal window frames were twisted by the heat of the blaze.

More than one-third of the city's fire equipment was at the scene, and suburban fire departments sent crews into the city to act as backup.

Jim Rubens, who works at a law firm in the building, said he held hands with other victims as firefighters escorted them down a smoky stairwell.

``It was horribly thick smoke and the halls were completely dark,'' said Rubens, who was sweating and covered in black soot. ``And we were trying to touch the person in front of you to see where we were going to.''

Sarah Nadelhoffer, a lawyer who worked on the 39th floor, said she was working late when her office started to fill up with smoke.

She and co-workers were forced into another office, where they opened a window to get fresh air. They stuffed a coat under the door to block the smoke, which was getting thicker.

``I was thinking it can't be over this way,'' she said. ``I also thought I have no control. I'm going to pray the fire department gets me out.''

A state-funded investigation of the fatal fire at the 35-story Cook County Administration Building in October 2003 concluded in September that the deaths could have been prevented if there had been sprinklers and unlocked stairwells, and if firefighters had searched for victims sooner and kept out smoke and heat.

The state report also cited inadequate evacuation training of building staff and occupants, and poor communication among fire and police emergency dispatchers as well as the city's emergency dispatchers and fire commanders at the scene.

Several people who escaped Monday's fire said none of the stairwell doors were locked, fire alarm announcements told them clearly what to do and that firefighters found them and led them to safety.

LaSalle Bank spokesman Shawn Platt said about 3,000 people work in the building. Most people there work normal business hours, but some departments are open 24 hours, he said. The 29th floor holds the bank's trust division, he said.

Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter said there were 400 to 500 people in the building at the time of the fire.

The bank conducted a safety drill about a month ago, and the building was in the process of installing fire sprinklers, though there weren't any on the 29th floor, Platt said.

Chicago-based Lasalle Bank has $65.1 billion in assets and $35 billion in deposits and is one of the largest banks in the Midwest. Its building was originally named the Field Building, after Chicago retailer Marshall Field, whose estate developed the skyscraper in the early 1930s. It was designated a Chicago landmark in 1994.