Wed, Dec 08, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Famous building burns in Chicago


Fire broke out high in a historic downtown skyscraper, belching smoke and flames from windows as firefighters helped workers to safety through darkened stairways. Twenty-five people were injured, including a dozen firefighters.

Eight injured firefighters and five others were hospitalized in serious condition, said Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford. The rest of the injured were treated for smoke inhalation or minor injuries, Langford said.

Langford said he had no reports of anyone trapped in the 43-story LaSalle Bank building in Chicago's Loop, but searches of the stairwells and floors were still underway. Firefighters shot water into the windows of the burning structure, and metal window frames were twisted from the heat of the flames.

A spokesman for the Cook County medical examiner's office said it had not been notified of any deaths.

The fire on the 29th floor was reported about 6:30pm Monday, said police Officer JoAnn Taylor. The Art Deco-style skyscraper serves as the corporate headquarters of LaSalle Bank, one of the largest banks in the Midwest.

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

"It was horribly thick smoke and the halls were completely dark," said Rubens, who was sweating and covered in soot.

Tom Smith, a lawyer, said a firefighter took him to safety in a freight elevator after smoke in a stairway turned him back.

"It's kind of scary. When I started seeing smoke in the hall, that started getting disconcerting to say the least," Smith said.

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."

More than one-third of the city's fire equipment was at the scene, and thick black smoke continued to pour out windows three hours after the fire was reported.

The fire comes 14 months after a 35-story building in downtown owned by Cook County caught fire, killing six people. A state-funded investigation of the October 2003 blaze 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.

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.

The bank conducted a safety drill about a month ago, and Platt said the building has sprinklers, although he did not know on which floors they were located.

LaSalle's headquarters was originally named the Field Building, after Chicago retailer Marshall Field, whose estate developed the structure in the early 1930s.

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