Chicago Officials Say City Complying With Recommendations After Deadly Blaze

CHICAGO (AP) -- The city of Chicago is complying with most of the recommendations in a $2 million state-funded review of last year's fatal fire at the Cook County Administration Building, and it is continuing to make improvements, the city's fire commissioner said Wednesday.

Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter said the department began changing its procedures before the release of any review of the Oct. 17, 2003, fire that killed six people trapped in a stairwell of the downtown high-rise.

``We know each fire is unpredictable and poses different challenges that can help us learn how we can keep Chicagoans even safer,'' Trotter said. ``The Witt report gave us yet another opportunity to take a look at our firefighter practices and our procedures to further improve.''

Gov. Rod Blagojevich hired James Lee Witt, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency director, to investigate the blaze. The report, released in October, determined the deaths could have been prevented if the building had sprinklers, unlocked stairwell doors and if firefighters had searched those stairwells and not let in smoke and heat.

The independent commission made 26 recommendations, including that all high-rise buildings install sprinklers and doors that automatically unlock during emergencies.

Witt's report echoed earlier findings by a county review team headed by Abner Mikva, a former U.S. Court of Appeals chief judge. Trotter said Wednesday that all the recommendations in that report had been addressed.

The fire broke out in a 12th-floor storage room and was contained to that floor, but smoke poured into a stairwell where several people on higher floors had become trapped when the stairwell doors locked behind them. The victims weren't found until about 90 minutes later.

Since the blaze, the county has installed sprinklers in the 35-story building and a system for unlocking stairwell doors in an emergency. The City Council also passed an ordinance requiring fire sprinklers in commercial high-rises built before 1975. Stairwell doors are required to be either unlocked or have unlocking mechanisms.

Trotter said three of the Witt recommendations were not in the Mikva report, but that the department had developed policies to address those as well. They included improving the training of building employees who work with fire safety, developing protocols for rescuing people with disabilities and implementing a training program that ensures firefighters are evaluated on an annual basis.

The fire department has said the fire was started by someone either on purpose or by accident. Police department officials said Tuesday their investigation is ongoing.

The changes that stemmed from the county building fire helped firefighters battle another large fire on Dec. 6 at the LaSalle Bank Building in the heart of the city's downtown financial district, Trotter said.

No one died in that fire. Firefighters methodically searched for survivors in the 43-story building while battling the blaze, and extinguished it after five and a half hours. Nearly 40 people were injured.

Investigators determined that the blaze was an accident and was caused by an electrical malfunction. Workers have since returned to the building.