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Rescuers were near when fire victim jumped

March 30, 2007|Louis Sahagun and Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writers

A man stranded by fire on the 18th floor of a Long Beach condo tower died after he jumped from a balcony to escape -- just as firefighters arrived by stairwell one floor below him and while witnesses outside watched the plunge in horror, authorities said Thursday.

The flames gutted the Galaxy Towers oceanfront condominium of John Carlyle Crews, 60, who jumped to his death.

The cause of the blaze, which started about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday at 2999 E. Ocean Blvd., remains under investigation, said Assistant Chief Robert Espinosa of the Long Beach Fire Department.

"We've ruled out arson, and all indicators suggest it started in the kitchen," he said.

An arson investigator said the victim had no visible burns or injuries, but an autopsy will be conducted, said Fire Capt. Jim Arvizu.

Witnesses said Crews -- a longtime tenant and insurance agent described by neighbors as amiable and with a penchant for taking long walks along the strand -- screamed, "Help me. I don't want to die," before jumping. His death was witnessed by two dozen onlookers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Long Beach fire: An article in the March 30 California section about a man who died after a fire broke out on the 18th floor of a condo tower stated that the incident occurred in the 2nd District, represented by City Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal. The fire occurred in the 3rd District, which is represented by Councilman Gary Delong.

"The gentleman had made a final decision to jump," Arvizu said, speculating that Crews may have felt he had a better chance of surviving the jump than the fire. "We were here, and en route up the stairwells when he jumped. But consequences of jumping were outweighed by the heat.

"We have numerous reports and a couple of people who actually videotaped the person throughout the whole incident," Arvizu said.

There were no other injuries.

Fire authorities said the building's X-shaped architecture, with four units per floor and no long hallways, helped contain the flames and enabled firefighters to more easily evacuate about 40 residents from upper floors. Those residents were allowed to return home later in the night. Other residents were allowed to remain in their units with doors closed.

"We could see flames coming out of most windows on the 18th floor, and heard glass falling," said Tim McTavish, a Long Beach real estate agent who lives a block away. "The flames became more intense, shooting straight up toward the 19th floor.

"There was a lot of commotion on the streets," he said. "We heard the screams of spectators in the street and people inside the building, as though someone was in very bad danger.

"The yelling stopped abruptly," he added. "Then there was an eerie silence."

The silver-and-blue high-rise in the historic Bluff Park district had no sprinkler system, except in the basement parking garage, Arvizu said. It was built in 1966, before laws required them.

A proposed city ordinance would require retrofitting some buildings, but the City Council has not taken action on it. That proposal was prompted by the devastating December 2006 Paradise Garden apartment fire in North Long Beach, which killed two, injured 18 and left hundreds homeless. That building also did not have working sprinklers.

Arvizu said 54% of the city's 74 high-rises lack sprinkler systems.

The proposal, first presented to the City Council's Public Safety Committee on Jan. 7, is tentatively scheduled to return to the Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

Real estate agent Carol Soccio said retrofitting is sorely needed in the booming seaside community, where firetruck ladders reach a maximum of about 100 feet, or eight stories.

"My concern is that there are a lot of high-rises going up in Long Beach right now," she said. "The answer is twofold: Stop building 20-story buildings and get sprinkler systems installed in every building over seven stories."

Long Beach 2nd District Councilman Suja Lowenthal, whose district includes Bluff Park, said she agreed with fire authorities that retrofitting should be required over a certain period of time.

"If my trusted Fire Department is telling me that we could have avoided this tragedy with fire sprinklers, we should listen," she said. "Our public safety considerations weigh more than financial burdens such a requirement would create for owners."

Long Beach 3rd District Councilman Gary Delong, however, was less sure.

"Sprinklers are not a panacea; I think we need to look at all the options available," he said in an interview at the scene. "Owners of these buildings have to pay for improvements, so that has to be taken into consideration -- it's a balance of costs versus safety."

Arvizu said about 100 firefighters arrived at the scene within four minutes of the alarm and made it up the stairwell with about 100 pounds of gear each on their backs in about seven minutes.

The blaze, which took about an hour to knock down, caused an estimated $500,000 in damage to other units from fire, smoke and water, Assistant Chief Espinosa said.

*

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

nancy.wride@latimes.com

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