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Evacuation Order in Chicago Fire Questioned

The high-rise's stairwells were dangerously filled with smoke during the blaze, which killed six. Officials say they did not issue the exit command.

October 19, 2003|From Associated Press

CHICAGO — Jerry Lawrence could smell the smoke as he headed for the stairs on the 32nd floor of the Cook County Administration Building but he thought it was just a trash fire. It wasn't until he and others had crowded into the stairwell and the smoke began thickening around them that he began to worry.

"You could feel people picking up their pace in the stairwell as it became clearer and clearer that the fire was pretty bad," he said.

Once outside, Lawrence and his co-workers from the Cook County state's attorney's office huddled in a group as flames and smoke poured from the government building's 12th floor. As the minutes passed, they prayed for one colleague still missing -- Randy Roberts, 47.

Officials hadn't determined Saturday what started the fire that left six people dead but said it had gutted a storage room in the Secretary of State's office and damaged much of the 12th floor. Fire Commissioner James Joyce said the building had an alarm system but no sprinklers above the first floor. It holds as many as 2,500 people during business hours.

The fire began around 5 p.m. Friday as many workers in the 35-story building were preparing to go home for the weekend. Smoke filled the downtown tower's two stairwells as people followed an announcement to evacuate.

Only after the blaze had been put out did firefighters find about a dozen more people in the stairwell and on the 22nd floor, fire officials said. Roberts was among the survivors. Saturday, he and seven others remained hospitalized, some in serious or critical condition.

One question investigators were asking was whether workers should have been told to evacuate.

Employees said they obeyed an announcement to leave the building using two smoke-filled stairwells, but Joyce said Saturday fire officials didn't issue the order and did not know who did.

"Since Sept. 11 everyone's mind is set on when there's a fire in a high rise, you have to evacuate, but many times people are safer staying where they are," fire department spokeswoman Molly Sullivan said.

The Cook County Medical Examiner's office withheld the names of most of the victims pending notification of their family members but confirmed three identified by Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy as his employees.

Maureen McDonald, 57, worked with the state's elderly wards; Sara White Chapman, 38, was an attorney; and John Slater III, 39, represented children in divorce cases, Murphy said.

Murphy criticized fire officials' response to the fire, saying employees who tried to evacuate down the smoky stairwell were told when they reached the 12th floor to go back up. The employees could not find open doors until the 27th floor, and many were unable to escape the stairwell.

Joyce defended the department's actions.

"We responded very quickly with the appropriate manpower and did some courageous work," he said.

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