Settlement reached in deadly Loop fire

City to pay $50M
April 28, 2008 8:47:00 PM PDT
A multi-million dollar settlement has been reached involving the deadly Loop high-rise fire at the Cook County Building.Six people died in that fire after getting trapped in the stairwell.

The tragedy happened at the county building at 69 West Washington back in October of 2003.

A trial was scheduled to begin Tuesday. There were jurors waiting to be selected. It never came to that.

This qualifies as one of the largest civil settlements ever in Cook County history - in excess of $100 million for the 22 plaintiffs. The City of Chicago must pay the victims a total of $50 million.

It is not a surprise that there was a settlement because all sides seemed to be working toward that end. It's likely a relief for the families of the six people who died in the fire.

Of the 16 others who were severely injured in that fire four and a half years ago, many of those people were prepared to testify in this.

During the fire, everyone had been presumed to be out and controlled with no serious injuries, and yet a search of the stairwell found six victims and many others who were near death. Some of them were miraculously brought back to life after being rushed to the hospital.

The attorneys on both sides said Tuesday that they believe this settlement in excess of $100 million is fair and just.

"It is a fair. Certainly, a good settlement is better than a great trial any day. Our clients are satisfied that they have had their full day and fair day in court," said Bob Clifford, plaintiffs' attorney.

"It was decided to put an end to a really very sad situation that's really affected everybody in the building. It's really a time where we hope for peace and healing for the people that were the victims of this," said Dan Boho, attorney for 69 W. Washington.

The 69 West Washington management firm was one of the three remaining defendants along with the city and one other company.

The county last Tuesday agreed to its portion of the settlement, which was $9 million. The city will pay out $50 million after Monday's settlement. The city is insured for any settlement more than $15 million.

There is a legacy beyond this settlement as to how high-rise fires are handled now.

A rapid ascent team has been established. The lesson learned from that fire was that the fire department was fighting a fire first and didn't search the stairwells. Protocols have been changed. Doors cannot be locked to a stairwell, so victims cannot be stuck in a stairwell.

The plaintiffs will receive compensations ranging from $159,000 to $11.7 million each.

Survivors spared from testimony

"Maureen McDonald and John Slater and Sarah Chapman were amazing friends, amazing people. They loved their job," said Carol Melton, fire survivor.

"Today is a very sad day for us, for all of us, but at the same time we want to try to put the events of that tragic day behind us," said Randy Roberts, fire survivor.

Roberts and Melton nearly died in the fire. They and others that day four and a half years ago did what they were told to do. They headed down a stairwell in the 69 West Washington building, only to be told to go back up. Then they discovered that the doors had locked behind them, trapping them in a smoke-filled stairwell. Firefighters didn't know they were there until it was too late.

People were suffocating, and they didn't have much time. That pertinent information was on the news, it was given to commanders of the fire department all over the city, but it never got to the incident commanders on the scene.

There is no acknowledgment in the settlement of fault, although the city's share indirectly says that mistakes were made because front-line firefighters didn't know people were trapped.

"Bear in mind that these firefighters, while we may quarrel with some of the things that occurred in terms of the firefighting that day, these men put their lives on the line," said Kevin Durkin, attorney for plaintiffs.

"It is one of the most life-changing experiences, and there are a lot of regrets, and they will affect my life forever," said Meribeth Mermall, fire survivor.

The survivors all say they were prepared to testify, but they dreaded that thought. Even the replaying of the chilling 911 tapes at Monday afternoon's news conference brought tears.

A lot has changed for Melton since she survived. The memories of sharing the last moments of life with several of her close friends who died will never go away. Neither will the survivor's guilt.

The settlement means she will not have to relive it all in court.

"Not having to sit on a witness stand and be questioned about that, I have enough anxiety on my own about it, enough fears, enough guilt, enough sadness," she said.

Melton says there were countless ways the tragedy could have been prevented. One of her friends who escaped told firefighters where she and the others were trapped, to no avail.

Ann Marie Slater was at the building to meet her husband. But firefighters found John Slater's body in the stairwell long after they had extinguished the fire. Ann Marie and John were married a little more than a year earlier.

He was an accomplished marathon runner who might have been able to escape but likely died trying to help others get out.

"It makes me very proud. I knew the kind of person that he would be would not have left without helping whoever he could," said Ann Marie Slater.

Ann Marie Slater has never before spoken publicly about her husband's death. But she was prepared to testify at the trial.

"That would have been hard, so it's relieving not to have to go through the trial," she said.

Still, victims and their families want to make sure lessons are learned out of their tragedy and that such a large settlement sends a message.

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