Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

    May 4, 1988
    First Interstate Bank Fire

Towering Inferno II -- Still No Movie Version

By John J. Fitzgerald
Box 4 Fire Buff Club, Dallas, Texas

    Some 11 1/2 years ago this writer was fortunate enough to witness the Occidental Tower fire and write the Grapevine article (Feb. 77) "The Towering Inferno -- No Movie Version."

    About 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday May 4, 1988, while visiting the City of the Angels, I heard OCD dispatch Task Forces 3 and 9, Salvage 4, and Battalion 1 to a fire at Wilshire and Hope streets.  Upon arrival, Battalion 1 Chief Don Cate, reported fire showing from windows on an upper floor and said to OCD, "Give me 5 additional Task Forces, 5 Triples, and 5 Battalion Chiefs."

    While rushing for the door of my hotel room at Sunset and Vermont, I shouted to my wife that I was going to a fire and did not know when I'd be back.  Driving rapidly I had made the Hollywood Freeway and Vermont when Chief Cate transmitted to OCD, "Double my present assignment."

    On exiting the Harbor Freeway at Wilshire I was right behind Task Force 20 (the 8th Task Force to arrive on the scene) crossed Figueroa Street and parked my car.  I thought to myself "Why all the fuss" since I could see no engines, no hose or troops on the street.  As I reached the corner of Wilshire and Flower and looked up, I could not believe my eyes.  There was fire shooting out of virtually every window on the west and south sides of the 12th and 13th floors of this 150 foot by 200 foot building and there was the most eerie graveyard-quiet imaginable.

    For the next four hours I was fortunate to witness and listen to (via a scanner) the most courageous battle that the Los Angeles Fire Department has ever had to face.  I watched fire leap out from one window, then another, and another on the 14th., 15th., and then 16th. floors on the south, east and west sides of the building.  LAFD helicopters hovered above and then set down and deposited men and equipment on the roof.  During this same time they were rescuing people who had fled from the building to the roof.   A chopper stood still hovering within fifty feet from the building at the 50th. floor while lighting up a window where a trapped victim was signaling for help to be rescued.  Later these fantastic pilots even came down as low as the 16th. floor so a chief officer could take a closer look inside the burned floors while flying fifty feet away from the side of the building as they slowly circled this square block structure.

    Fire personnel from over 60 units, 14 Battalion Chiefs, all three Division Chiefs, and 9 staff officers including Chief Engineer Donald O. Manning moved from the staging area to the fire scene to perform their duties both inside and outside the fire building.  Ten LAFD Rescue Ambulances and approximately ten private ambulances transported rescued civilians and several injured firefighters to local hospitals.

    It was ironic that history repeated itself as it had 11 1/2 years earlier -- security personnel turning off the fire alarm and sending maintenance personnel to the fire floor to verify what they thought was a false alarm.  This time the fire was confirmed by a young man who hollered into his walkie talkie "Help me -- car 33 is on fire."  After doing this several times there was silence



from the man who must have died a very agonizing death.  This same delay in fire reporting allowed both towering infernos to gain headway needlessly as well as costing a life in the same manner.

     Los Angeles fire personnel have practiced night high rise simulated fire fighting drills for the last 15 years that I know of, but with fire pumps shut off, melted fire hose connections on the fire floors causing water to flow without hoses being connected to them, an opening between the concrete floor and the exterior wall of the building, continuous glass up the entire outside of a 62-story building, and decorative aluminum trim raging 3 floors above the fire floor in a blow torch manner, these fire personnel faced a virtually impossible task.

    Two statements will forever stay in my mind's eye, "Division 14 to Incident Command" (14th floor fire scene to Street Command Post) "We have a lot of heat and smoke on 14 but no fire."  Incident Command to Division 14, "There is fire showing on 14, 15, and 16th floors."  Later Chief DeLuca made a profound statement on TV, "We had chief officers sending personnel in on the fire floors knowing full well they could possibly never see them come out alive."


    Walk upright and proud Los Angeles finest, you've faced hell and put it out.  I salute you each and every day, for you walk in the finest tradition.


What Happened:
Fire's location and
surrounding area

Graphics reprinted with permission of American 
Fire Journal, John A. Ackerman, Publisher.

JULY, 1988


Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved.