Posted on October 12, 2004

Chicago’s Next High-Rise Tragedy

Chicago Tribune, Oct. 6

Nearly one year after a Loop fire at a high-rise owned by Cook County, two investigative reports have yielded an extraordinary amount of knowledge about that blaze and how it killed six people. The most troubling conclusion to be drawn from those reports is that not enough has been done to prevent something similar from happening again today.

The first report came in July from a blue-ribbon panel headed by retired federal appellate Judge Abner Mikva. The second came last week from James Lee Witt Associates, a state-commissioned consulting firm. If these reports teach one overarching lesson, it is that these six deaths didn’t have to happen.

Put short, the reports are a trove of superb suggestions for protecting high-rises in Chicago and elsewhere from inevitable emergencies that imperil lives. Taken together, the Mikva and Witt reports largely answer the four questions posed on this page nine days after the fire:

— Did Cook County cut corners and imperil safety when it renovated the building in the 1990s? And did the [County Board President John] Stroger political donors who were under contract to manage the structure have the necessary safety precautions in place?

The Witt report renders a damning verdict on county officials: “Cook County failed to properly monitor building management operations of the Cook County Administration Building relative to building design, systems, security, emergency planning, education and training.”

The report repeatedly criticizes the politically connected company hired by the county to manage the building. That company was formed by firms headed by Elzie Higginbottom and Robert Wislow, both of whom have donated campaign funds to Stroger. Thirty-one of the Witt report’s 81 findings allege failures by building managers, security personnel or county officials. The allegations range from inadequate evacuation procedures and insufficient emergency training to inadequate response to the blaze and the lack of a fail-safe system to unlock stairwell doors. A lawyer for building managers denied that his clients had made mistakes.

Lawsuits filed by lawyers for the families of fire victims may help specify who is to blame for what. But it’s fair to conclude from the reports that county officials were careless stewards.

The Mikva commission attempted to determine why the county didn’t install sprinklers after acquiring the building in 1996, or when building managers proposed sprinklers in 2002. “Who’s responsible?” Mikva said in July. “I suppose you’d have to say the County Board.”

— Does Chicago’s building code adequately protect people who work in, dwell in or visit high-rises? Or should building owners and managers be subject to tougher safety standards?

The Mikva commission recommended that Chicago require sprinkler systems in older commercial buildings, even though most high-rise casualties take place in residential structures. The Witt report goes further, saying the city “should require installation of automatic fire sprinkler systems in all high-rise buildings.”

These appealing but costly suggestions currently await action by the City Council. One alternative: a fire-safety point system, which would require the owner of each structure to meet a certain score by installing sprinklers or making other safety improvements.

The Witt report says county officials failed to ensure that the building complied with city and state codes — despite the county’s insistence after the fire that the building did meet code.

The bottom line here for people who own, manage, live in, work in or visit high-rises is this: Fire codes are merely attempts to create safe environments, not guarantees of safety. Meeting codes is necessary, but may not be sufficient.

One intriguing suggestion from the Mikva commission: a statewide, model building code to replace a current patchwork of regulations, some of them obsolete and contradictory.

— Did Chicago firefighters properly balance the need to suppress the blaze with the safety of occupants attempting to flee via a stairwell?

The Mikva report bluntly said actions of the Chicago Fire Department were “a significant factor in the loss of life and serious injuries.” The Witt report says firefighters didn’t “adequately search and account for occupants in the stairways prior to and during fire fighting operations.” The core problem, said Mikva commission member Sheila Murphy, a retired judge, was that several officials directing firefighters at the scene “did not know what they were doing.” Witt’s probe found “no evidence” that fire commanders had received “even the most basic training in regard to their own standards.”

Those are blistering verdicts.

Cortez Trotter, Chicago’s new fire commissioner, last month announced improved protocols for responding to and fighting high-rise blazes. But relative silence has greeted the Mikva commission’s provocative proposal that almost all of the Fire Department’s 70-some top posts be filled on the basis of testing and merit. As is, the fire commissioner fills those jobs as he sees fit. Often in Chicago, those promotions have been driven by raw patronage, ethnic politics, City Hall clout or affirmative action.

Mayor Richard Daley has defended the right of the fire commissioner to name his management team. But as Mikva suggested the day his commission issued its report: “[I]f it’s someone who’s going to be on the line, making decisions at the scene of a fire, that ought to be somebody who got there on merit.” Until City Hall grapples with that principle, Chicagoans are sure to have lingering doubts about Fire Department brass.

— What protocol determines who asks building occupants to evacuate? And in this tragic case, did someone badly bungle that decision?

Both reports paint the evacuation of the building as a slow-motion failure, with lots of blame to go around. The real lesson for those of us who occupy high-rises is that it’s unwise to rely on employers, building staffers or firefighters for every answer. Each of us needs to think through, and walk through, what we’ll do in an emergency. Example: The Witt report says 48 percent of the county building’s occupants didn’t realize that the stairwell doors would lock behind them.

With only one report still to come — the Chicago Police Department’s ruling on the cause of the fire — it’s time for action. The Mikva and Witt reports demand multiple reforms from state, county and city officials who need to be held accountable. Dodging real reforms only invites Chicago’s next high-rise tragedy.