A fierce and stubborn blaze on the 29th floor of the LaSalle National Bank building sent dozens of panicked employees rushing through thick gray smoke and into stairwells Monday night, their fear compounded by memories of the fatal Cook County Administration Building fire last year.
More than four hours after the fire started in the Loop building at 135 S. LaSalle St., flames were still licking out windows after spreading across the 29th floor, which officials said was not equipped with sprinklers. It was nearly midnight before firefighters had beaten the blaze that began at about 6:30 p.m.
More than one-third of the city's firefighting force was on the scene, according to department spokesman Larry Langford.
At least 25 people had been taken to area hospitals late Monday. Twelve of the injured were firefighters, eight of whom were in serious condition, according to preliminary reports. Langford could not say late Monday whether everyone in the building had been accounted for.
As the blaze continued into the night, the Fire Department put out a call for help from suburban departments, asking them to report to the Chicago Fire Academy on the near South Side where they'd be dispatched to city fire stations.
Chief Terry Lipinski of the Bridgeview Fire Department said 11 engines and 11 trucks came from suburbs including Oak Park, Des Plaines and Naperville, the most fire departments ever called in from outside city limits.
Once started, the LaSalle building fire quickly spread, its heat shattering windows along the 29th floor, sending sheets of glass crashing along Adams Street while orange flames shot out of the building.
Those who escaped the 29th floor described the office as filling up with smoke at a frightening pace. Susan Keizer and Joe Sifferlen saw the flames, called security and headed for the door.
"As soon as we looked over our shoulders, there was no going back," Keizer said. "The smoke was following us down the hall."
Other employees who evacuated said an alarm sounded first, accompanied by a message telling them to remain calm and not evacuate. About 10 minutes later, witnesses said, a second alarm sounded and a message ordered everyone to evacuate.
Memories of last year's deadly blaze in the county administration building at 69 W. Washington St. were difficult to shake. Several of those who fled Monday's fire recalled that all six who died in last year's fire were killed by smoke inhalation after getting trapped on a stairwell.
"We were working late and smelled the smoke, so we decided to walk down the stairwell," said Sarah Nadelhoffer, who was working on the 39th floor. "But I remembered other fires where getting down the stairwell was not a good idea."
Instead, Nadelhoffer and co-workers put clothes in the space between her office's door and the floor to keep smoke from coming in. At one point, the smoke became so bad she had to stick her head out the window to breathe.
"I was thinking it can't end this way," Nadelhoffer said.
Minutes later, firefighters arrived and led the workers down on the elevator.
Willy Tay, whose wife, Farah, is five months pregnant and works in the building, said she called him when the fire broke out.
"She called me from the 35th floor saying that the building is on fire and said that she loved me," Tay said. "And then I said, `Yeah, that's nice, get out of the building.'"
Tay said his wife and about 20 co-workers had walked down to the 31st floor after the alarms sounded, but they wound up marching back to the 35th floor because of fire and smoke. At one point, they had to break windows to breathe.
About 20 minutes later, they were told over the intercom that it was safe to go down the stairwell. Farah Tay wound up walking down and was then taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Her husband said she and the baby were fine and would stay in the hospital overnight.
Keizer, who works in the 29th floor corporate trust sales office of LaSalle Bank, said she was going to get her coat and purse when she noticed flames shooting up from a small table in a common area. She said the table was covered with holiday gift baskets from clients.
"We called security and we started to see smoke," Keizer said. "We got out so fast."
The Cook County Administration Building fire broke out on Oct. 17, 2003. A final report from an investigative panel found that if the building had had sprinklers or stairwell doors that automatically unlocked in a fire, none of the deaths would have occurred.
The report also recommended sweeping changes at the Chicago Fire Department, including improved firefighter training.
The 45-story LaSalle National Bank building, originally known as the Field Building, was completed in 1934 and was the last skyscraper built in the Loop until the 1950s.
In 1997, ABN AMRO Bank, the Dutch parent company of LaSalle Bank, purchased the building, the Chicago bank's longtime headquarters.
LaSalle occupies nearly 80 percent of the 1.2-million-square-foot building, according to real estate research firm CoStar Group.
The bank has about 3,000 employees in the building, according to CoStar. Most of the other tenants are small law firms and investment firms.
Shawn Platt, spokesman for LaSalle Bank, said the LaSalle Street building will be closed Tuesday, but all of the bank's branch locations will be open.
Traffic around the building was expected to be diverted on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the CTA said late Monday it was unclear whether bus routes would be affected.
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