LOS ANGELES -- Workers today began salvaging what remained from a fire that turned the city's main library into 'an incinerator,' damaging or destroying more than 1 million books, historic photographs and valuable archives.
Employees returned to the building today to begin going through the debris to determine which books were salvagable. Some fire and library officials estimated that as much as 80 percent of the library's 2 million books might be saved.
Experts in book restoration were being flown in from San Francisco and Sacramento to lead a process of 'freeze drying' the books, photographs and records that suffered water damage in the five-hour blaze Tuesday, said Romaine Ahlstrom, the library's collection development manager.
No official damage estimate was given on the books and the 60-year-old building but Assistant Fire Chief Rey Rojo said, 'It's going to be in the millions.'
About 400 people, half of them employees and half patrons, got out of the building safely, warned by an automatic alarm system that went off about 11 a.m. Tuesday.
At least 24 firefighters were taken to hospitals with smoke inhalation, and two were kept overnight. Other firefighters were treated and released by paramedics.
Mayor Tom Bradley went to the scene and proclaimed it 'one of the city's worst disasters.'
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets and traffic into the city was snarled for hours after smoke and flames began pouring from the squat, stucco building that was the centerpiece of a $1 billion downtown renovation project.
The library contained more than two million books, periodicals and microfilmed collections worth millions of dollars. Officials said virtually all were damaged and up to half destroyed, including the only complete collection of U.S. Patent Office records on the West Coast that cost $250,000 and took 15 years to compile.
Betty Gay, central library director, said the collection was valued at nearly $70 million four years ago.
Deputy Fire Chief Craig Drummond called the fire the most difficult to fight in his 27 years on the department.
When the first of three dozen fire trucks that ultimately responded to the fire arrived, only wisps of smoke were seen. But within minutes the fire burrowed deep into the core of the building and generated so much heat and smoke that firefighters were driven back to regroup. The flames sounded like blowtorches as they poured from windows.
Drummond said the building, designed by architect Bertrand Goodhue and built in 1925-26, acted like 'an incinerator,' blowing flames through the steel grate floors and down the narrow stacks of books.
Most of the injured firefighters were overcome as they struggled through mounds of water-logged books in virtual darkness from the black smoke.
At one point, a firefighter said, the walls 'were glowing cherry red.'
The four-story building -- an exotic mixture of Byzantine, Egyptian and Roman revival architectural styles nestled among some of the city's tallest office towers -- was described just the day before as 'exhausted' and a fire hazard by the city's chief administrative officer.
Some of rarest books, including a Shakespeare folio from 1685, were kept in a vault in the basement that was apparently not damaged, but other valuable works, including one-of-a-kind volumes on California history, were scattered throughout the building and were destroyed.
'We've been warned about it being a fire trap,' said Pat Zeidler, a senior science librarian. 'Everyone in the library has had nightmares. Our worst nightmare happened this afternoon.'