Cook County Administration Building fire nears 10th anniversary

October 16, 2013 (CHICAGO)

Chicago is a city that in many respects has been defined by the aftermath of fire: the Great Fire of 1871, the Iroquois Theater in 1903, and Our Lady of Angels in 1958.

The county building fire ten years ago did not have the same level of human loss, but it had nonetheless a profound effect on this city. And it started as a fire that many considered to be "no big deal."

Fire on the 12th floor. Just before five. It's a Friday afternoon. As the fire department is called, the building engineer calls for a full building evacuation. People start coming down the southeast stairwell, unaware that firefighters have set up their key battlefront on the 12th floor landing. The people are told to go back up.

"And as we progressed up, people started to say the doors are locked. The doors are locked. And you start to think this is very serious," said Dick Devine, former state's attorney.

The state's attorney and some co-workers escaped because someone had propped open a door on floor 27. But others below weren't so lucky. Doors had locked behind them. They were trapped in a stairwell that had become a chimney.

ABC7's Paul Meincke asks, "Could you see anything? Could you hear anything?"

"No, it was black. People were screaming. It was black," said Jody Schneiderman, fire survivor.

In a 911 call, Schneiderman said: "The doors are locked. We can't get in."
911 operator: "Ok do you hear them?"
Schneiderman: "21st floor. Hurry. We're suffocating."

Jody Schneiderman was on her cell phone to 911 for eight minutes explaining that she and others were on the 21st floor. Four times the operator said firefighters were on the way. Eighty minutes later, Jody and half a dozen others were found in the stairwell barely alive. Six others were dead.

"What was really mind-boggling was that the firemen were there," said Bob Clifford, attorney for victims and survivors.

A lot went wrong that night. It was a perfect storm of communication failures, fighting the fire at the expense of search and rescue. And a lot changed because of it. Today, a high-rise fire means, RATS, or Rapid Ascent Teams, begin search and rescue first.

"Their mission is to go above the fire where people may be going toward the fire and clear the stairwells. Clear the hallways," said Jose Santiago, Chicago Fire Commissioner.

Another company takes control of the lobby.

"Automatically, the first chief is trying to find out. Did you give an evacuation order, yes or no. Where are your people at?" said Santiago.

Command structure was redesigned. There are new multi-channel digital radios with better reception in tall buildings. Every firefighter has one, not just company commanders. Stairwell doors still lock, but city code requires that the push of a single control panel button unlocks all of them. At 69 West Washington, if a sensor anywhere in the building detects what it thinks is smoke, the stairwell doors unlock automatically.

"We believe that our fire department took to heart the lessons that were learned from this terrible tragedy, and we have a safer city because of it," said Clifford.

"At least we learned some lessons from it. Too many lives lost. But we learned lessons from it," said Devine.

Now, Jody Schneiderman is uncomfortable in high rises - certainly in stairwells - and says she is reluctant to trust 911. But there's something else from her brush with death.

"Just really remembering what each moment was like is really terrifying and makes you appreciate life now and live every moment to the fullest," said Schneiderman.

Five years ago, on the eve of trial, the city, the county and its insurers agreed to a $100 million out-of-court settlement. No one acknowledged any fault. But clearly, there have been abundant changes in firefighting tactics and life safety codes.

They may always be debated, but the fire at 69 West Washington a decade ago has an undeniable place in the history of a city so often defined by fire.

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