Lack of sprinkler system in high-rise questioned

December 11, 2009 (CHICAGO) The fire is renewing safety concerns about the building.

Twenty-two floors below the raging fire, at 1:15 Thursday morning, Maureen Marley was awakened by a phone call from a friend on the 35th floor. There's a fire, she said, and smoke.

"First thing was anger that this is happening again, and a little bit of fear. 'Oh god, not me again. Don't involve me in this again,'" Marley said.

Eight years ago next month, a fire on Maureen's 14th floor took a life.

Maureen and another neighbor were trapped in their end-of-the-hallway condos by a fire so intense that it melted the helmets off the Squad 1 firefighters, who had to beat a retreat until reinforcements and more water arrived.

"No building is safe without sprinklers," Marley said.

After the 2002 fire, Marley became a strong advocate for sprinklers, testifying before the city council that redrew Chicago's fire safety ordinance for high-rises.

The new code allowed older high-rises to opt for other life-safety improvements short of a costly retrofit for sprinklers. That's what the condo association at 280 East Chestnut chose to do. It installed an annunciator system, which broadcasts loud warnings and gives instructions to residents above and below the fire floors.

While those announcements were being made, hundreds of firefighters were banging on doors throughout the high-rise.

"I knew I was not in any danger. They asked, 'are any older people here?' I said, 'no, just me, I can stay it's the safest place,' and they said, 'if we need you to move we'll come and get you,'" said building resident Tim Schiewe.

Building management and the fire department say that the firefight and evacuation plan yesterday worked well, and that the building was in compliance with code eight years ago and remains so today.

"The annunciator, that announcing machine is not going to put out a fire," Marley said.

She says she plans to argue that the sprinkler issue needs to be revisited in her building and city-wide, no matter the cost.

"They do cost a lot. I have no idea what they cost, but people's lives are at stake, so you have to weigh that," said building resident Joyce Slory.

There was lengthy debate before the city council restructured the fire code for commercial and residential high-rises.

Owners of many older high-rises argued that complete sprinkler retrofits would simply be cost prohibitive, and they pursued -- as did the condo association at 280 East Chestnut -- other fire safety options which the revised code allows.

But Beata Bihl died in her apartment apparently because of an electrical problem in a kitchen appliance.

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