Scene of Latest High-Rise Fire Lacked Sprinklers

Official renews call to retrofit all residential high-rise buildings with fire suppression systems

Nine years after a fatal fire in the Cook County Administration Building at 69 West Washington, fire sprinklers still aren’t mandated for older residential high-rises in Chicago.

And on Tuesday, two more people died in a fire in an unsprinklered high rise building. One of the men was in his 30s. A second was in his 40s, and a third person suffered smoke inhalation in that fire in the 6700 block of South Shore Drive.

"It’s bad news," said fire expert Michael McGreal. "It’s bad news in a lot of different ways."

McGreal, a consultant with Firedyne Engineering of Tinley Park, is part of a growing community of experts who maintain all residential high-rises, no matter the vintage, should be retrofitted with fire sprinklers.

"There’s retrofit sprinkler ordinances in numerous cities and states, and even a couple of suburbs of Chicago," he said.

He said he is convinced that there would have been no loss of life if the South Shore building would have been equipped with fire sprinklers.

"It would not have broken through the glass to go to the outside of the building to travel up," McGreal explained. "It would have basically been controlled or extinguished with one or two sprinklers."

After the tragedy at 69 West Washington, there was a chorus of voices calling for all Chicago residential buildings to be sprinklered. But hearing the cries of building owners that they could not shoulder the enormous expense of retrofitting their buildings, the Chicago City Council excused owners from installing sprinklers in pre-1975 buildings if they filed approved Life Safety Plans instead.

Those plans mandated certain safety features designed to improve the survival of residents. The deadline has been extended twice, most recently to 2015.

"I think it doesn’t make a lot of sense," McGreal said. "I mean, why put it off for another three years?"

Indeed, an examination of city records shows that building owners have a long way to go. Out of 630 residential high rises which must submit some kind of plan, only 323 have done so. 

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