14 Years After 69 West Washington—Fire Reforms Are Still Incomplete

It’s been fourteen years since fire roared through the Cook County Administration Building at 69 West Washington, killing six people. But an examination of reforms enacted in the fire’s aftermath suggests no buildings have been penalized for failure to comply, despite what many consider a generous city ordinance and numerous extensions.

And in at least one very high-profile case, even the City of Chicago has been unable to meet its own safety deadline.

The fire in October of 2003 was traced to a faulty light fixture on the building’s 12th floor. The six victims were among more than a dozen employees who became trapped in a smoke-filled stairwell and were not found until 90 minutes after the initial alarm.

A formal state investigation determined that the fire would likely have been extinguished by a single sprinkler, had the building been sprinkler-equipped. The investigation’s head, former FEMA director James Lee Witt, said the finding pointed to the need for sprinklers in all Chicago high-rises.

“The thing of it is,” said Witt, “if we don’t start today, then it will never get done.”

Fourteen years later, it still have not been fully done. While other cities like Boston, Houston, and San Francisco have required sprinkler upgrades, the City of Chicago balked at requiring sprinklers in all high-rise buildings. While commercial buildings were required to retrofit, residential high-rises were given the option of other building upgrades called “Life Safety Evaluations.” Among those requirements, self-closing doors, two-way communications with all floors, and elevators which automatically returned to building lobbies during fires.

The required upgrades can be cumbersome and expensive. But even after numerous deadline extensions, scores of Chicago buildings still have not complied with the city’s mandates.

Among 731 residential high-rises required to implement upgrades, 510 are now in full compliance, 86 opted to install sprinklers, and 81 have active court cases against them. Another 37 have final inspections scheduled this year.

But the city could point to no cases where buildings have been fined for failure to comply with what was promised to be a rigid life-saving code.

“You have to understand, that the reason why they kept giving extensions and why it took so long, is this is not an easy thing to accomplish in a lot of older buildings,” Chicago Building Commissioner Judith Freydland told NBC5 Investigates. “If we have to babysit them to comply we’re going to do that. We want people to comply and be safe!”

Freydland argued that her office has not let buildings off the hook, and that it was more important to bring them into compliance than seek penalties.

“You can’t just go in on the first court date and ask for a fine,” she said. “The reason we did this is to help public safety and that’s what we’re getting. We’re getting better and safer buildings.”

To be certain, some buildings have made substantial investments short of full installation of sprinklers. A visit to one 43 floor building on North Lake Shore Drive with over 600 units, showed an elaborate and expensive installation of two-way communications systems, new alarms, and apartments fitted with doors designed to repel fire for at least two hours.

“This is not just a matter of writing a check,” Freydland argued. “These are not easy fixes on older buildings.”

But if residential buildings are being dragged slowly into compliance, the City of Chicago concedes in response to an open records request by NBC5 Investigates that at least 20 commercial buildings have blown past the January 1 deadline to have sprinklers fully installed.

Among those buildings is 121 N. LaSalle Street--- Chicago City Hall.

“The City has been diligently working to complete the sprinkler system installation in City Hall as well as the installation of important fire safety features,” the Chicago office of Fleet and Facility Management said in a statement. “The schedule was impacted by the need to minimize the impact to the public serving departments and operations.”

A spokesman said sprinkler installation has been completed on seven floors of City Hall, and the remaining portions of the building are expected to be completed later this year.

While arguing that “a sprinkler is not a magic wand,” Freydland said her office will aggressively pursue any of the commercial buildings who are deemed to be flauting the law.

“They’re going to be sent to circuit court,” she said. “We’re in the process of working on fire and law now.”

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford noted the majority of commercial high-rises have met the sprinkler deadline.

“There is a small number of buildings in various stages of meeting City requirements,” Langford said in a statement. “The Chicago Fire Department is working proactively to bring any remaining buildings into compliance.”

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