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News :: Labor
COOK COUNTY COVER-UP: THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR REPORT
22 Apr 2004
In response to a suggestion that the City of Chicago should act mature and take some resposibility for the tragic deaths of six County workers, Mayor Daley scoffed: "We have a great fire department."
A startling new report, issued by the Illinois Department Of Labor, has outlined sixteen extremely serious safety violations related to the deaths of six people in a downtown Chicago fire last year. On October 17, 2003, six Cook County employees died during business hours in a fire that erupted at ceiling level on the 12th-floor of the Cook County Administration Building at 69 E. Washington. The six workers, including well-known Chicago feminist activist Felice Lichaw, suffocated, when they were trapped in a smoke-filled stairwell by doors that locked behind them. The Illinois Department of Labor is now, among other things, accusing Cook County of an act of "willful neglect" related to those deaths.

Out of the sixteen citations, seven were issued to the City of Chicago, for violations of Occupational Safety & Health Administration codes. The report accuses the Chicago Fire Department of failing to implement its own command system, failing to maintain lines of communication, and failing "to provide all fire personnel proper training." The Department of Labor also alleges that firefighters basically ignored 911 calls from people trapped inside the building; some of these callers were hopelessly attempting to report the fact that there were people trapped in the smoke-filled stairwell.

Astonishingly, in what may be becoming the biggest cover-up the City of Chicago has ever known, James Joyce, the very Fire Commissioner who recently resigned (some speculate, due to his mishandling of the fatal Cook County building fire), said the city will likely rebut each citation. “We are meeting . . . to go through those seven citations one by one and offer a response," Joyce said, suggesting the Department of Labor doesn't "know too much about fire department procedures." To the dismay of families of the victims, and as if mocking the seriousness of the deadly fire, Joyce was overheard complaining "Every agency must think they need a piece of this action. They're jumping on each other and jumping on us."

Cook County itself is also cited, nine times, for failing 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 said 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 for shoddy inspection and maintenance of stairwell louvers, which were suppose to keep smoke out of the stairwell. Shockingly, State investigators said 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 in the stairwells. 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 six bodies were found. 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.

The Department of Labor spent six long months on their investigation in order to come to these conclusions. State law (according to the State Safety Inspection and Education Act and the Health and Safety 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. That is what the Department of Labor did, and it claims its conclusions are solid. "We conducted a very aggressive investigation," Esther Lopez, the Department of Labor Acting Director, insisted.

However, in what many are considering to be a heartless slap in the face to the victims of this senseless tragedy, both the City of Chicago and Cook County are refusing to take any responsibility, shrugging the report off as a "stealth" investigation, and calling it "weak." Comparing apples to oranges, Mayor Daley scoffed at the charges, harping "Where were they when a couple people were killed on the South Side and West Side --where were they?" Daley has also expressed frustration with the handling of the story by the press, claiming journalists belong to a special "club" that only reports negative stories about the fire department. "We have a great fire department," Daley said.

This refusal by the City of Chicago and Cook County to admit their failures comes despite 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 (in violation of high-rise building code) by what she described as a "frantic" female 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, that 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 Lichaw 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. Unfortunately, the command van informed of the call was not in contact with the firefighters inside the building. Hallberg said a firefighter arrived, who was primarily concerned about Dick Devine's safety. Once again Hallberg tried to inform the firefighter that Lichaw was 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 (the origin of the fire), 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 told her go to a hospital. Hallberg was forced to take a cab to a hospital, where she was treated for smoke inhalation. Hours later, Felice Lichaw's body was found in the stairwell. Regardless of this eye-witness account, as well as several others like it, Mayor Daley and John Stroger have yet to aplogize to the public, and they have disputed the Department of Labor's jurisdiction in the matter.

Illinois Governor Blagojevich disagrees with Daley and Stroger, supporting the Department of Labor's investigation, saying it was properly conducted and calling it "helpful." He reminded anyone who would forget that “Six people lost their lives in a terrible fire. The Department of Labor is meeting its legal responsibility and they've done it and offered conclusions."

Bob Clifford, an attorney representing some victims, said he was not surprised by the citations, calling the incident a "tragedy of errors" that could have been prevented regardless of the cause of the fire. Others have come forward expressing the same sentiment, suggesting that the desperate attempt to cover up the facts and to blame the fire on a phantom arsonist, might actually be an attempt to cover up a "sea of corruption" that led to the deaths of six innocent people. A small amount of gasoline residue, found on debris in the closet where the fire began, fueled the arson theory and led the Cook County Coroner to rule the six deaths homicides. Investigators later admitted that boxes stored in the closet were shipped in the same truck as gasoline powered lawnmowers, and at least ten cans of gasoline were found in the building, which may have been used by Cook County as cleaning solvents. Light fixtures, if faulty, could have ignited gasoline tainted boxes stored in the closet by the Secretary of State. The light fixtures have been repeatedly tested, without resulting in any conclusions. Therefore, nobody is willing to accept any blame.

Testifying before an independent committee appointed to investigate the fire, an official who lost three employees in the fire compared the six deaths to the deaths of the Willis children in 1994, and blamed the fire on "an ocean of political corruption" that allowed an unqualified firm to manage the building. Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy testified that the company managing the Cook County Administration Building won a 1997 contract based on politics, not qualifications. The building in question is owned by Cook County and managed in part by East Lake Management. East Lake CEO Elzie Higginbottom contributes regularly to political campaigns. Higginbottom also serves as chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board. Murphy pointed out that East Lake 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 East Lake property on South Cottage Grove Avenue killed four people and injured 60. The building lacked adequate smoke detectors. East Lake 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 East Lake building. Higginbottom's firm was charged with 21 violations in that case.

Almost immediately following the October 17 Cook County Building fire, but a bit too late, sprinklers were installed for the first time in the building, and automatic release doors were installed.

Footnote

Business is still not as usual at the fire damaged Cook County Building. Most of its agencies are still housed at inferior, alternative locations, one of which has sparked some controversy. In what is being called a "snub" to the separation of Church and State, the Circuit Court of Cook County and the Social Services Department are sending some traffic violators to 721 N. LaSalle, which is a Catholic run institution. This building has a waiting room with walls covered in religious images and icons, including photos of the Pope and paintings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. In violation of civil rights, everyone sent by Social Services or the Circuit Court to this location, whether they be Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, is forced, by law, to donate money to this so-called Catholic "Charity."

Despite all the neglect, all the violations and the obvious cover up, it seems little will actually be done to hold the guilty parties accountable for any of this. The violations from the Department of Labor, for example, carry minuscule fines. The "willful neglect" citation only carries a maximum fine of up to $10,000. In total, Cook County could face a maximum of $18,000 in fines, and the City of Chicago, only $9,000 in fines, less than the fines imposed upon some traffic law violators.

How many political careers will this stubborn cover up of a senseless tragedy cost? How long can Mayor Daley live in denial? That is yet to be determined. Only the people of Chicago and Cook County have the answer to that, and despite all the double-talk dished out by Da Mayor, the people of Chicago are not stupid. The future political careers of those involved depend a lot upon how mature our elected officials act, when faced with the difficult task of admitting their own failures.

Sources of information used in this report incluce: CBS2, NBC5, ABC7, Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.

--Drunk Bastard

This work is in the public domain
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