Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

    May 4, 1988
    First Interstate Bank Fire

at the 

By Michael Roy, Pilot II
LAFD Air Operations

    When the announcement of fire came over the loudspeaker at the First Interstate Bank Building, Robert Lopez scrambled to the stairwell and started down.  After descending ten stories, the smoke drove him back to the fiftieth floor where he had been vacuuming -- hopefully he would find some fresh air.

    At 10:37 p.m. the fire department received the first call reporting a fire in the  Interstate Bank building.  L.A's tallest.  A short time later, pilot Rick Lawin, flying Police Air-3 on regular patrol, spotted the fire.  Along with Air-8, he landed on the roof heliport and evacuated Zora Imamovic and five others of her cleaning crew who were fortunate enough to have been working on the upper floors of this 62 story building.

    When Chief Don Cate (Battalion 1) arrived on scene, he observed fire coming out most windows on about the 9th floor -- he immediately called for more resources.  Among these were Fire-3 with Airborne E-78 and Fire-6 with a Nightsun.

    Pilot Paul Shakstad, a 17 year veteran of the department, started a floor by floor search in Fire-6 while helitac Dick Davis operated the Nightsun.  Larry Harris, flying Fire 2 placed E-78 on the roof; they opened the penthouse to release hot smoke and gases, donned breathing apparatus and entered the building to search for more victims.

    By now it had become the worst high-rise fire in L.A.'s history.  Large shards of glass sailed dangerously to the street, cutting hoselines.  The 12th and 13th floors were fully involved with flames roaring up to threaten the 14th.  Quoting Pilot Shakstad, "Turbulence, caused by the fire and eddies swirling around the building, made it difficult to hover near the windows.  Sometimes rising smoke engulfed the building, reducing visibility to almost nothing."

    Roberto Lopez saw the light shining through thick smoke.  He frantically waved a curtain at the helicopter hovering outside the 50th floor office he had taken refuge in.  Shakstad quickly zeroed in on that window; he and Davis started computing which floor they were at so they could assist the Incident Commander in directing rescue personnel to him.  They requested Air-3 to tell Lopez with their P.A. to stay put -- help was on the way.

    Two other helicopters were dispatched, Fire-1 as an air ambulance/hoist rescue and Fire-2 carrying Airborne E-100.  Engine 78 and 100 were twice driven back by the intense heat and smoke after being able to penetrate only a few floors.  The helicopters brought more crews, air bottles and other support equipment (supplied by E-102 at the helispot) to the roof.  E-78 was flown to Temple and Grand to confer with Chief McMaster who was assigned as Air Operations Chief.

    They decided to make up several two person teams with specific floor assignments to find and rescue Lopez.  Fire-1, configured as an air ambulance, stood by.  Larry Harris, after delivering E-78, idled his helicopter on the roof, fearing that if he had to extract the rescue teams heavy smoke would not allow a return approach to the building.  While a police ship continued



to search, Shakstad stayed with the victim on the 50th floor because, "With the smoke building up, I felt if we left him he may go down and the rescue team wouldn't be able to find the correct office."  He hovered there for over an hour until he was low on fuel, then George Barti, flying fire-2 relieved him.

    While forty percent of the department's on-duty firefighters were valiantly fighting to stop the fire at the 16th floor, the rescue teams from the roof were finally able to penetrate further into the building.  Shakstad in Fire-6 returned to relieve Barti after refueling and making several recons of the fire floors for the incident commander.

        One team, consisting of FF Bruce Young and Eng. Ron Bruno, searching on the 55th floor ran low on air and Bruno became ill from exposure to heat and smoke (he was later diagnosed as having walking pneumonia).  They requested help and broke out a window while waiting for another team to bring them fresh air bottles.  They were then able to make it back to the roof and were transported to a hospital for observation.

    About 2:30 a.m. flashlights from a rescue team could be seen on the floor below Roberto Lopez; Shakstad could no longer see Roberto -- he had gone down.  He directed that team of A/O Paul Hilzer & FF Mike Meadows to the correct office.  They, along with other teams from L.F. 85 & 37 commanded by Capt. Bill Tannahill, found Lopez in the smoke under the drapes, on the floor.

    About the same time FF/Paramedic Eric Lauridsen and Capt. Mark Jones reached Lopez.  They administered oxygen to Lopez and the firefighters all took turns carrying Roberto to the roof where he was transported by Pilot Cooper in Fire-1 to the hospital.

    A total of 26.9 hours were flown by the L.A. Fire Department and 2.6 by the L.A. Police Department helping to abate this emergency.  L.A. County Fire and Sheriff's birds stood by in case more people had to be evacuated.  The firefighters, paramedics, pilots, helitac, police and others who supported air operations at this fire can feel satisfied that their dedication and tenacity paid off with saving at least one life -- possibly more.

    According to Deputy Fire Chief Don Anthony, helicopters proved their worth, "I really think fire helicopters were critical on this fire, and I think if we had had hundreds of people on the roof, they could have effected a tremendous number of rescues."

    One man died when he became trapped in the elevator at the fire floor.  Luckily, although some were injured, everyone else escaped the towering inferno.

JULY, 1988


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