Chicago, Illinois Mayor Praises Response to High-Rise Fire

CHICAGO (AP) -- Mayor Richard Daley on Tuesday praised the fire department's response to a stubborn fire at a historic downtown high-rise, hailing a coordinated response that differed in marked ways from a year-ago fire that left six dead.

``The response was well-organized and well-executed,'' Daley said. ``The people inside refused to panic, and from all accounts firefighters led them to safety as soon as possible.''

Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter declined to describe his department's response to the fire as a textbook example of fighting a high-rise blaze but said he was pleased that no lives were lost.

He also praised the operators of the LaSalle Bank building in the city's downtown Loop business district for conducting drills with fire personnel and using fire safeguards, including unlocked stairwell doors.

``They took the extra step to make a difference, and for us it made all the difference,'' Trotter said.

The stubborn fire broke out about 6:30 p.m. Monday night and burned for 5 1/2 hours at the Art Deco-style building at 135 S. LaSalle St. It sent at least 37 people to area hospitals, including 23 firefighters, but most had been released by Tuesday afternoon. Trotter said four firefighters remained hospitalized for observation.

Trotter declined to speculate on what might have caused the fire, which started on the 29th floor.

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

A state-funded investigation of the fatal fire at the 35-story Cook County Administration Building in October 2003 concluded 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.

In response, the fire department established ``rapid ascent teams'' whose primary task is finding people and leading them to safety. Trotter said at least 50 to 75 firefighters did that job in Monday's fire.

He declined to compare Monday's response to the October 2003 fire, which many speculated led then-Fire Commissioner James Joyce to retire earlier this year.

``The men and women of the Chicago Fire Department perform heroically every day, not just to high-rise fires,'' Trotter said.

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.

More than 450 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.

Office workers who escaped blaze in the 43-story corporate headquarters of LaSalle Bank 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.''

Thick black smoke poured out of windows, and metal window frames were twisted by the heat of the blaze.

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.''

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.

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

The fire did not affect bank customers ``in any significant way'' Tuesday, said Louis Rosenthal, executive vice president for LaSalle Bank Corp.

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.