WORLD

A towering inferno

PEETER KOPVILLEM May 16 1988
WORLD

A towering inferno

PEETER KOPVILLEM May 16 1988

A towering inferno

In the Los Angeles night sky, the fierce glare was visible for miles. When fire broke out last Wednesday at about 10:30 p.m. in the city’s 62-storey First Interstate Bank building, it spread quickly, gutting floors 12 to 15 of California’s tallest building, injuring 30 people and killing one man. Fire department officials said that it was the worst highrise blaze in Los Angeles history. As orange tongues of flame erupted and clouds of smoke billowed from the building, 270 firefighters and four helicopters battled the blaze in scenes reminiscent of the star-studded 1974 disaster movie The Towering Inferno. And although firefighters managed to extinguish the flames in about three hours, they later admitted that they had doubted their ability to contain the fire. Said Donald Manning, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Fire Department: “It was touch and go.”

The fire was one of three spectacular disasters in the United States last week. At about 3:30 a.m. on Thursday an explosion and fire destroyed part of the Shell Oil refinery in Norco, La., killing one worker, injuring more than 40 people and severely damaging homes and businesses within a five-kilometre radius of the plant. And on Wednesday, a series of explosions at the Pacific Engineering & Production Co. of Nevada—a rocketfuel factory in Henderson—levelled the plant and destroyed an adjacent marshmallow factory. Those blasts, which killed at least one person and injured more than 250 others, rattled windows 25 km away in Las Vegas and registered 3.5 on the Richter scale, used for measuring earthquakes.

Following the Los Angeles blaze, concerns about fire safety in highrise buildings predominated. For one thing, the First Interstate building, completed in 1973, lacked a sprinkler system because in Los Angeles that safety feature did not become man-

datory until 1974. Although First Interstate officials had recently decided to install a system, it was still not operational. In fact, work crews had turned off the water while upgrading a standpipe shortly before the fire broke out —causing a 40-minute delay for firefighters who had to turn the water back on

before dealing with the blaze.

Manning declared that if the sprinklers had been in place, the fire would have been far less serious. But about three-quarters of the city’s highrises do not have sprinklers—and last week’s incident clearly showed the destructiveness of highrise blazes and the difficulties of fighting them. As the fire burned out of control, igniting office furnishings made out of synthetic materials, temperatures reached 600°C. Firefighters climbing up 15 flights of stairs with portable oxygen tanks had to retreat frequently as their air supplies ran out. And as windows in the glass-fronted building exploded with the heat, the shards of glass further hindered the firefighters by severing water hoses.

In Henderson, safety procedures also emerged as an issue after the explosions. Officials of the United Steelworkers of America union, which represents workers at the plant, said that they had had longtime conii cerns about safety at i the facility. But in the Nevada town—as in Norco and Los Angeles—the causes of the disasters were difficult to determine. In all three places, investigators continued to sift through the rubble, searching for clues that would help ascertain the causes of the destructive — and deadly — accidents.

PEETER KOPVILLEM