No sprinkler system in Streeterville high-rise

December 10, 2009 (CHICAGO) Flames shot out of the condo building at 260 East Chestnut in the Streeterville neighborhood. More than 200 residents ran out into the bitter cold after the fire broke out shortly before 1 a.m. Thursday.

Investigators say the fire started on the 36th floor in the unit of the woman who died, 84-year-old Beata Bihl.

"She was found in the front of the apartment toward the door, trying to make an escape," said Commissioner John Brooks of the Chicago fire department.

Twelve people were injured, including five firefighters. Only one person was hurt seriously.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. The building is not equipped with automatic sprinklers.

This was the second fatal fire at the same high-rise in seven years, and some people feel sprinklers could have prevented another tragedy.

The city requires that commercial buildings built before 1975 be retrofitted with sprinklers and have a third of that done by 2012. However, for residential high-rise buildings, the law doesn't have the same kind of reach. Some say the woman who died would have only gotten wet had there been sprinklers in the building to protect her.

Thursday's scene was one that mirrored what happened in the same place seven years ago. Back then one person died, and several people, including firefighters, were hurt.

"Quick-response sprinklers operate four times faster than a commercial fire sprinkler and allows the people to escape. No firemen are injured, and basically, no civilians are injured," said Tom Lia of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board.

Lia's organization wants stronger regulations for Chicago, based on national standards spelled out in a manual. A former suburban fire chief and marshall, Lia says the city has the nation's weakest fire sprinkler laws because of politics, despite the experience of seven years ago, and the tightening of commercial regulations after the 2003 Cook County Administration building fire, in which nine people died.

"The only way to solve the high-rise fire safety problem is to stop the fire in the area of origin. And what the city is doing with that ordinance, they're conceding the fire deaths in individual occupancies and taking it from there, whereas everyone else, if you went with the IFPA version, you would be putting the fire out in the occupancy," Lia said.

That law, the city's Fire Sprinkler Substitute Ordinance, says older residential buildings must file a "Life Safety Evaluation plan" that lists other measures building management has taken to protect residents from fire. These include having reinforced fire walls, and a robust public address system.

"They were able to call us on the scene, and we were able to send our company straight up there to check out things," said Chicago Fire Dept. Chief Joe Roccasalva.

Chicago's Building Owners Management Association declined to comment on the fire. In a statement, the manager of the building thanked Chicago firefighters for their efforts but did not answer whether sprinklers should have been installed. The fire department says people have to know to stay put in their apartments during a fire if their unit is safe.

"The trouble is, people go out into the hallway where there may be more smoke," the fire chief said.

High-rise residents speaking with ABC7 Chicago said it is kept clean, and the building management says here are sprinklers in three common areas: a parking garage, a trash compacter, and one other basic common area of the building.

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