Officials Probe Chicago High-Rise Fire

A stubborn fire raged for 5½ hours on the 29th floor of a historic downtown skyscraper, shooting flames from windows and sending at least 37 people to hospitals, most of them firefighters who suffered smoke inhalation. Some injuries were serious, but no deaths were reported.

Streets around the Art Deco-style building, which serves as the corporate headquarters of LaSalle Bank (search), were closed to pedestrians and traffic early Tuesday as officials investigated the cause and tried to determine if the building was structurally sound.

More than 300 firefighters battled the blaze Monday night, shooting water into the windows and sometimes standing on the building's wedding cake-like tiers to gain better access. Office workers who escaped the blaze in the 43-story building said firefighters escorted them through blinding smoke to safety.

Of the 37 people injured, 22 were firefighters in moderate to serious condition, said fire commissioner Cortez Trotter. Most were being treated for smoke inhalation or minor injuries, officials said.

Bob Bailey, a partner in a commercial real estate law firm on the building's 39th floor, said he had to keep his head outside a window or near the ground because of the smoke until firefighters came and led him down an elevator.

"We had our windows open in the office and I had to put my coat on the door, so that smoke wouldn't start rolling in," he said. "And for a while, we weren't sure we were going to make it."

The fire at 135 S. LaSalle Street (search) was reported about 6:30 p.m. and extinguished about midnight. Thick black smoke poured out of windows, and metal window frames were twisted by the heat of the blaze on the 29th and 30th floors.

More than one-third of the city's fire equipment was at the scene, and suburban fire departments sent crews into the city to act as backup.

Officials began interviewing firefighters and witnesses early Tuesday and had sealed the 29th and 30th floors because of the intense heat and to preserve evidence, said Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.

Jim Rubens, who works at a law firm in the building, said he held hands with other victims as firefighters escorted them down a smoky stairwell.

"It was horribly thick smoke and the halls were completely dark," said Rubens, who was sweating and covered in black soot. "And we were trying to touch the person in front of you to see where we were going to."

Sarah Nadelhoffer, a lawyer who worked on the 39th floor, was working late when her office started to fill up with smoke. She and co-workers were forced into another office, where they opened a window to get fresh air. They stuffed a coat under the door to block the smoke, which was getting thicker.

"I was thinking it can't be over this way," she said. "I also thought I have no control. I'm going to pray the fire department gets me out."

The fire comes 14 months after a 35-story county building in downtown Chicago caught fire, killing six people. A state-funded investigation concluded that the deaths could have been prevented if there had been sprinklers and unlocked stairwells, and if firefighters had searched for victims sooner and kept out smoke and heat.

Several people who escaped Monday's fire said none of the stairwell doors were locked, fire alarm announcements told them clearly what to do and that firefighters found them and led them to safety.

LaSalle Bank spokesman Shawn Platt said the bank conducted a safety drill about a month ago, but there were no sprinklers on the 29th floor, which holds the bank's trust division. He said the building was putting in the infrastructure for sprinklers.

About 3,000 people work in the building, but only 400 to 500 were in the building at the time of the fire, he said.

Lasalle Bank is one of the largest banks in the Midwest. Its building was originally named the Field Building, after Chicago retailer Marshall Field (search), whose estate developed the skyscraper in the early 1930s. It was designated a Chicago landmark in 1994.