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Mopping Up : Diapers and Elbow Grease Are Tools as an Army Labors at First Interstate Bank

June 10, 1988|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

If California soon runs short of cloth diapers, the blame may fall on a single, gigantic mess: the charred and soot-filled First Interstate Bank tower in downtown Los Angeles.

In the weeks since fire ravaged four floors of the 62-story building on May 4, cleanup workers have gone through 12,000 pounds of cotton baby diapers to remove sticky soot from desks, walls and other surfaces.

It is just one element of the difficult, multimillion-dollar task of cleaning and restoring the city's tallest building, where four floors were gutted and one maintenance worker killed in the worst high-rise fire ever in Los Angeles.

By the time repair work is finished, perhaps late this year or early in 1989, it will have involved well over 1,100 workers, more than 30 contracting firms and untold truckloads of hardware, furnishings and deodorizing products.

More than 900 cleaners already are at work wiping soot from every floor, every desk and every file cabinet. Elevators and smoke alarm systems are being repaired and blackened debris is being hauled away by the ton. Engineers are inspecting walls, beams and window mullions. Electricians and metallurgists are figuring out how to replace wiring systems and scorched metal moldings.

If all goes as planned, some tenants may be able to return to the least-damaged floors this summer. Ultimately, contractors say, they will leave the 16-year-old high-rise as good as new--and lint-free.

"We have just about exhausted the whole diaper industry in the United States with this," said Greg Blackmon, vice president of Texas-based Blackmon-Mooring-Steamatic Catastrophe Inc., which is handling much of the cleanup work. "You can't use just any kind of rag on this soot . . . because of lint. So we have expediters and purchasing people that have been combing the countryside" for diapers.

This week, BMS workers launched into another key part of the cleanup--clearing debris from the roughly 70,000 square feet that was burned. To begin that, contractors had to rig a giant exterior elevator on one side of the building and a huge, box-like metal chute reaching to the 16th floor on the other.

Those two tools will help carry down a veritable slag heap of desks, pipes, air-conditioning ducts, carpets, light fixtures and computer carcasses. "Some larger items won't go down the chute, so those either have to be cut up and put down the chute or taken down the outside elevator," Blackmon said. "We cut them up with blowtorches, hacksaws, pipe-cutters, wire-cutters, sledgehammers, whatever it takes."

The work will be geared heavily toward cleaning until late July, when mop-up crews are expected to turn the building over to engineers and reconstruction crews that will remodel the burned-out 12th though 15th floors, Blackmon said.

But the cleaning is one mammoth task in itself, involving not only walls and ceilings but also the insides of desks, the pages of vital documents and even the inner circuitry of computers.

A heavy coating of soot, made oily by contaminants from burnt plastics and synthetics, reached every corner of the building.

"You can't just vacuum it off or blow it off," Blackmon said. "It has to be hand-cleaned. If you can imagine hand-cleaning 62 stories, every square inch of it, that's kind of what it boils down to."

On Thursday, as First Interstate representatives led reporters on a tour of the building, scores of blue-shirted workers were using diapers, sponges and cotton swabs to attack the soot.

In a basement garage, they were lined up at long tables, wiping the soot page by page from ledgers, memos and loan papers. On the 34th floor, they were taking apart soot-covered desks. On the 27th, they were crowded into a kind of computer servicing factory, dismantling, cleaning and reassembling the electronic memory storehouses of the building.

"We do windows," too, said BMS project manager Tommy Stanley.

In the makeshift computer center, workers--mostly technicians hired out of Los Angeles-area trade schools--have handled nearly 4,000 computer monitors, keyboards, modems, typewriters and disk drives. With spray bottles and cotton swabs, they go over every metal part and circuit board in virtually every repairable machine.

"We're maybe one-third to halfway through," said chief engineer Larry Wood, who oversees an 80-member day shift and an 80-member night shift. "The faster you move, the more you save."

About 85% of the machines will be restored to working order, but others will have to be sold for salvage, Wood said. Every moment since the fire ended, contaminants such as soot and, in some cases, water from firefighting hoses have been at work on the insides of each component.

Some computers that work today may not tomorrow unless those contaminants are removed, he said.

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