THE COOK COUNTY BLAME GAME
On Friday, October 17, 2003, six workers died, and several more were wounded, after a mysterious fire broke out just before 5 p.m. in a storage room of the Secretary of State's Office on the 12th-floor of the 37-story Cook County Administration Building at 69 W. Washington in Chicago's Loop.
All six workers became stuck, ten floors above the fire, in a smoke filled stairwell that had doors that locked, trapping them inside. The stairwell had no working emergency phone. It had no sprinklers. And it had a faulty ventilation system. Those of the six who tried to escape the stairwell, down at the 12th-floor, were sent back up to their fate, into the smoke, by firefighters. Those of the six who called 911 from their cell phones were ignored and were left to die. There was a 90-minute gap between the time firefighters arrived on the scene and the time the six victims were found dead. The six bodies were not discovered until over an hour after the fire was under control.
Very little has been said about these victims: their lives, their families, their hopes for the future. Instead, everyone involved has been too busy blaming each other. It seems everyone has a finger to point with.
Cook County's Public Guardian, Patrick Murphy, who lost three of his employees during the fire, is pointing his finger at Cook County itself. He is criticizing the 94-page report that was recently issued by an investigative panel, chaired by a former appellate court judge, Abner Mikva. The "Mikva panel" has seen to it that, for the most part, Cook County is cleared of any wrongdoing. The panel spent nine months reviewing records, interviewing witnesses, and holding hearings, hoping to find the cause of the six deaths. But Patrick Murphy points out that the panel itself was hand-picked by Cook County President John Stroger, and that the members of the committee "are after all mostly politicians." Murphy pans the "Mikva report" for the lack of scrutiny it gives Stroger and the county. Murphy places blame for the fire with Eastlake Management, the company responsible for running the building, pointing out that Eastlake Management is owned by one of John Stroger's biggest political donors, Elzie Higginbottom.
"My major reservation is they seemed to give the county a pass by saying they saw nothing wrong in the process by which the building's management company was retained," Murphy told the Daily Herald. ". . . it's just the way business has been conducted in Cook County, that [contracts are] given to people who are politically connected without regards to the expertise, and I had hoped that they would touch upon that."
During his own testimony before the Mikva panel, Murphy compared the six deaths to the deaths of the Willis children in 1994, and he blamed the fire on "an ocean of political corruption" that allowed an unqualified firm to manage the building. Murphy testified that the company managing the Cook County Administration Building won a 1997 contract based on politics, not qualifications. Murphy also pointed out that Eastlake Management has faced more than three dozen lawsuits, which were based on dozens of code violations, due to mismanagement of its properties in recent years. In 1996, a fire at an Eastlake property on South Cottage Grove Avenue killed four people and injured 60. The building lacked adequate smoke detectors. Eastlake was charged with more than 30 building code violations as a result of the fire. A year later, a 3-year-old girl died during another fire at an Eastlake building. Higginbottom's firm was charged with 21 violations in that case.
Even though the final report by the Mikva panel concludes that a sprinkler system would have saved the six lives, the panel refuses to find fault with Cook County for not installing one. The report states: "In August 2002, the 69 West Washington Management Company LLC submitted its 2003 budget request, which included a submission calling for the installation of sprinklers within the building. However, because the Chicago Building Code did not require sprinklers, and because this submission did not appear to be a safety-related priority, sprinklers were not approved [by the county] at the time. Had sprinklers been approved at that time, it is very questionable whether sprinklers could have been installed and could have been operational by the time of this fire. Therefore, the Commission does not find fault and cannot criticize the building owner for not having approved and installed a sprinkler system prior to this fire."
In response to one of the few criticisms of Cook County the Mikva panel does make (that an evacuation of the building was ordered, in violation of building code, instead of telling people to stay put), Elzie Higginbottom replied: "Everyone's a Monday morning quarterback."
The report from the Mikva panel contradicts a recent report that was issued by the Illinois Department of Labor, which points its finger back at Cook County. State law (according to the State Safety Inspection and Education Act) dictates that the Department of Labor, the agency with jurisdiction over worker safety, should investigate any fire that results in injury or death of employees in a public sector. After six months of investigating, the Department of Labor accused Cook County of an act of "willful neglect" related to the six deaths.
The Department of Labor determined that the county failed to develop an emergency action plan for the building. According to the report, employees in the building had expressed concerns about locked stairwell doors during safety meetings prior to the October 17 blaze, concerns Cook County Board President John Stroger's administration "willfully" ignored. The report also says the county "failed to provide for the safety of employees," "failed to recognize the hazards of evacuating employees through the lobby," "failed to upgrade fire resistance doors" and "failed to develop an Emergency Action and Fire Prevention Plan." A citation also was issued to Cook County by the Department of Labor for shoddy inspection and maintenance of stairwell louvers, which were suppose to keep smoke out of the stairwell. Shockingly, State investigators say that the system of louvers had not been inspected for nearly thirty years, not since 1974. The system of louvers, tested after the fire, simply did not work. If the louvers were operating properly, it is very unlikely that anyone would have died from smoke inhalation. Furthermore, the county was faulted for not fixing "a number of unsealed wall penetrations for electrical conduits and pipes" that compromised the firewall on the building's southeast exit stairwell. These holes in the walls created drafts that drew smoke upward to the 21st and 22nd floors, where the workers died. According to the report, Cook County also violated federal workplace safety rules by providing no training on the evacuation of disabled workers. And the Department of Labor finally cited the county for apparently trying to cover up the incident by not formally reporting the fire to the state "as soon as possible," along with the fact that there were fatalities.
Though the more recent Mikva report overlooks much of Cook County's role in the six deaths, it does, however, point its finger primarily at the Chicago Fire Department. According to the Mikva report, if not for a series of blunders by the fire department, the six workers would still be alive today. The fire department is criticized by the Mikva panel for: fighting the fire from the wrong stairwell; propping open the 12th-floor door (which, according to the panel, hindered the ability of a smoke tower to pull smoke away from the stairs); failing to conduct a top-to-bottom stairway search; failing to direct fleeing employees to the northwest stairwell; and for failing to seize control of a public-address system. The Mikva panel report also blasts the fire department for giving inadequate training to firefighters and it also criticizes the department's promotion policies.
The Mikva report cites a series of communication breakdowns. For example, information from the 911 calls placed by the dying people trapped in the stairwell was never relayed to the incident commander on the scene. Singled out for particular criticism is Deputy Fire Commissioner Sal Marquez, who is accused of behaving "like a cowboy." Marquez arrived at the scene unannounced without reporting to the command van and proceeded to put out the remnants of the 12th-floor fire, after tower ladders had already attacked the fire from the outside. If he had checked in he might have been informed that people were trapped in the stairwell. "He was showboating -- acting like a doggone cowboy," a member of the Mikva panel said. Control of the fire switched several times as more-senior members of the department arrived on the scene, adding to the confusion, the report says.
The Mikva report also points out a lack of physical fitness standards in the fire department. "They can't run around at 290 or 300 pounds and expect to perform properly," a member of Mikva's panel said. Singled out was Lt. Anthony Williams of Aerial Tower Ladder One, for literally being too fat to fight the fire. Williams admits he aborted his search of the smoky stairwell after he became tired and out of breath. As the six workers who were trapped in the stairwell were choking and passing out, Williams retreated from the stairwell to the 11th floor, and after that, down to the 9th floor, to get fresh air bottles; then, instead of returning to the stairwell to complete his search, Williams went to the first floor to get treated by paramedics and also to rest, while the rest of his crew stood around, waiting for him to recover from his exhaustion.
The Mikva panel suggests that the answer to the tragedy is an overhaul of Fire Department promotion policies, including competitive exams for all positions except those "immediately below" the fire commissioner. There are 82 exempt positions in the fire department that do not require tests of any kind, including deputy district chief, district chief, assistant deputy fire commissioner, deputy fire commissioner, fire commissioner and so on.
At least one member of the Mikva panel is blaming the fact that there aren't enough women employed by the fire department. The Chicago Fire Department has 4,883 employees. Only 298 of these employees are women, and only 97 of those are actual firefighters. Sheila Murphy, the only woman allowed on the five-member Mikva panel, says she is "haunted" by "the number of women who came out of that building complaining to firefighters about victims still in the building." One of the survivors, Jill Runk, pleaded with "anyone in uniform" to search for her friends who were trapped in the stairwell, but she was quickly dismissed by the male firefighters, who treated her as if she was just some dumb blonde, some "frantic person." Suggesting sexism, Sheila Murphy asked: "Why aren't there more women firefighters involved on the scene, in the action? There are certainly bright, fit women. If they were an integral part of the Fire Department, shoulder to shoulder with the men, would the pleas of civilian women have gone unanswered?" Ironically, Felice Lichaw, who died in the blaze, was a well-known feminist / activist who spent her life fighting for equal opportunities such as this.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Fire Department's own report regarding the death of these six workers points its finger at some phantom arsonist. After taking apart the room where the fire began, and after interviewing witnesses who were working near the fire's origin, the fire department's Office of Fire Investigations report insists that the Cook County Building fire was set by an unknown person. The fire department report outlines why investigators changed their minds, from originally suspecting a faulty light fixture, to deciding that the presence of gasoline in the room was suspicious enough for them to conclude the fire was started by human hands. The report states that "after a thorough fire-scene examination and with the elimination of all accidental and natural causal factors" it is the opinion of the office that "this fire was an incendiary act, perpetrated by unknown person/s at this time, ignited with an open flame the vapors of an ignitable liquid that was poured and/or splashed in the supply room of suite 1240."
Two tests by an engineer (who was hired, by the way, by none-other than Elzie Higgenbottom's firm) have ruled out the light fixture as the cause. The fire department also claims that burn patterns showed the fire burned upward among boxes lining the 12th-floor supply room's back and side walls; they say this also disproves the theory that the fire was started by a faulty light fixture. Though several witnesses in the building claim they saw the fire at ceiling level, not floor level. Fire Department investigators said they found no hidden electrical conductors or other heat sources in the area of the shelves. A debris sample taken from 30 inches off the floor, "on top of some boxes," later tested positive for gasoline, triggering the "incendiary" finding. But at least ten cans of gasoline were later discovered on various floors in the building. Gasoline is sometimes used as a cleaning product. And some of the boxes from the storage room were shipped to the office in the same truck as gasoline powered lawn mowers. If these boxes were tainted with gasoline, a spark from a faulty light fixture could have certainly fallen downward, igniting the fire at floor level, if that is indeed where it started.
Members of the Mikva panel questioned whether the Fire Department has enough evidence to support the claim that the blaze was started by a person. Jeff Eaton, an independent expert hired to look into the deadly fire, testified before the Mikva panel that he found nothing to indicate it was intentionally set and instead pointed back to the faulty light fixture as the cause. "In all the testimony and the depositions … I didn't read anywhere where there was some unknown person walking into the locked area, walking into the supply room, pouring a liquid accelerant, lighting it with an open flame and then walking out," Eaton said.
Even during the fire department's own interviews with county employees, no evidence came to light to point to arson. Secretary of State employee Maryellen Drake told the fire department she was seated at her desk, dealing with a customer, when a co-worker alerted her that there was an odor of smoke in the room. Drake said she did not notice anything unusual, and that "there [were] no previous problems with any customers." The supply room where the fire started was only accessible to employees with swipe cards, and the break room where the supply room is located was not accessible to the public. Smoking was only allowed outside, not in the break room. Mike Jezierski, an assistant in the Secretary of State's office, said he was in the supply room earlier in the day, had noticed nothing unusual, and had stacked supplies there, including paper products and forms.
The people of Chicago will have to wait to see whom the Chicago Police Department's report blames. You see, the police department was about to release a report which would have concluded that gas found on debris after the October 17 fire was unburned, and therefore could not have been used to start the blaze (a report which would have toppled the arson theory). That conclusion would suggest the gasoline was either the product of "cross-contamination," that it was left perhaps by a firefighter's shovel, boot or some piece of equipment, or that the gasoline was planted there after the fire was under control. But before this controversial report could be released, yet another fire conveniently broke out in the Secretary of State's Office.
On Friday, June 25, 2004, once again just before 5 p.m., a few pieces of paper mysteriously began burning in the Secretary of State's new office on the 11th-floor of 17 N. State. St. Chicago Police said the new fire "at least temporarily changes" their investigation into the October 17 fire, and they will have to wait until after they investigate the smaller fire to issue a report about the fatal one. "This is something we obviously are obligated to look at as part of what we are doing," said David Bayless, police spokesman. "We are looking for links." Police were waiting for a final nod from the federal agents they were working with, before publicly labeling the cause and origin of the October 17 fire "inconclusive." Apparently, they did not get that nod.
Probably the most horrifying testimony presented before the Mikva panel contains a detailed description of the tragedy by an eye-witness, a County employee who narrowly escaped the lethal stairwell. Lori Hallberg explained how she and her co-worker, Felice Lichaw, became trapped in the smoky southeast stairwell, after being directed there by what she described as a "frantic" voice on the building's intercom. Hallberg said she and Lichaw exited their 31st-floor office into the stairwell, where they discovered smoke, which intensified as they descended to the lower floors, and which eventually became so thick that it became hard to see. During past fire drills, County employees were told to exit the stairwell at the 22nd-floor. But, on October 17, the 22nd-floor door was locked, and unlike the drills, there was no security guard there to hold it open. Hallberg and Lichaw found other people trapped on the 22nd-floor as well. The scene became chaotic. People began screaming and kicking the door when they realized that they could not open it to escape the smoke. One woman, blinded and coughing up soot, picked up the emergency telephone, only to find that the line was dead. In a state of panic, Hallberg left Lichaw behind. She scrambled back up the stairs, where she found Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine and about 10 of his staff in the stairwell. They went up as a group to the 27th-floor (five floors away from where the six died), where they managed to escape the deadly stairwell. Hallberg immediately placed one of the 911 calls, at 5:21 p.m., during which she told the dispatcher that Lichaw and others had been left behind and were still trapped in the stairwell. Hallberg said a firefighter arrived, who was primarily concerned about Dick Devine's safety. Once again Hallberg tried to inform the firefighter that Lichaw and others were trapped inside the stairwell, and once again nothing was done about it. Afraid for her own life, Hallberg attempted to flee the building down the northwest stairwell. She made it down to the 12th-floor, where firefighters yelled at her to go back up into the smoke. Instead, Hallberg continued down the stairs, where she finally exited into the main lobby and out of the building to safety. Hallberg said she then went to a policeman on Dearborn Street and requested oxygen, but the officer snapped at her to just go to a hospital. Hallberg was forced to take a cab to a hospital, where she was treated for smoke inhalation. More than an hour later, the lifeless bodies of six people, including Felice Lichaw's, were discovered in the stairwell.
Everyone has a finger to point with. They are playing the Cook County Blame Game. They say the six would still be alive if there had been a sprinkler system. They say they would be alive if the doors did not lock. They say they would be alive if the security guard had not ordered an evacuation. Or they would be alive if the firefighter was not so obese. Or if the firefighter had been a woman instead of a man. They say the six would still be alive if the manager of the building had not won a contract through sleazy politics. They say they would be alive if the 911 calls had not been ignored. Or if somebody, anybody, in thirty years time, had bothered to inspect the stairwell ventilation system. They blame it on the county. They blame it on the city. And they blame it on a phantom arsonist.
Everyone has a finger to point with. Nobody is willing to point their finger where it counts the most--into the mirror. And nobody seems to want to mention the six most important names in this tragedy of errors: Janet Grant, Felice Lichaw, Maureen McDonald, John Slater, Teresa White Chapman and Teresa Zajac.
Note: On October 17, 2003, Chicago Poet Felice Lichaw and five others died during a mysterious fire in the Cook County Administration Building in Chicago's Loop. Although there has been a lot of finger pointing, nobody is willing to take any blame.