Office building fire kills 5


ATLANTA -- Flames and choking smoke swept through the sixth floor of a busy 10-story office building in midtown Atlanta Friday, killing five people and injuring dozens more.

One woman leaped from a window of the glass office tower on Peachtree Street and lived, and firefighters carried trapped people down long extension ladders as smoke poured from shattered windows.


'We had firefighters who used up all their air in rescuing people and had to run to windows for air,' said D.M. Chamberlin, deputy chief of operations for the Atlanta Fire Department.

Office workers stood anxiously at the windows of the tower -- called the Peachtree 25th Building -- waiting to be rescued as others were carried to ambulances on stretchers and victims seated on the ground were administered oxygen.

One trembling woman hugged and kissed firefighters as they brought her to the foot of a ladder. Scores of office workers stood and sat along sidewalks, wiping smoke from their eyes and taking oxygen from rescue workers with tanks and masks.


A helicopter rescued a man hanging from a broken window at the back of the building, holding another man who was unconscious. Ladders were unable to reach them. The unconscious man died.

Mayor Andrew Young called it 'the worst fire in my eight years in office.'

'When we arrived at the scene, we had people hanging out the back windows and the front windows,' Chamberlin said. 'It presented a real problem. One lady had already jumped.'

Police said the woman apparently broke both legs in the six-story fall. She was reported in critical condition at Piedmont Hospital after surgery.

A witness said he and others begged her in vain not to jump.

'We saw her leg come out the window and we just kept screaming, 'Please don't jump!'' he said. 'But we didn't have a ladder or anything and the fire trucks weren't here yet, so all we could do was to tell her to please not jump and to keep calm.'

Officials said five people died and 38 were injured. More than 20 of the injured were hospitalized.

The building was not equipped with sprinkler systems.

'I have no problem professionally saying that if there were sprinklers I suspect it would have saved lives,' Chamberlin said.


He said a law requiring buildings to have automatic sprinklers was not in effect until at least 10 years after the building was constructed in 1962.

Fire Chief Thomas Ferrin walked through the ruins of the sixth floor examining a charred electrical panel believed to be the source of the blaze and pointing out areas nearby where two bodies were found.

'This place had to be pure hell in here for quite a while,' he said. 'If this building had have been sprinklered, maybe we would have had only one death.'

Atlanta Public Safety spokesman Keith Williams said the fire broke out around 10:30 a.m. EDT in the building, which houses the Atlanta branch of the National Transportation Safety Board and a half dozen other federal offices.

Chamberlin said the cause of the blaze was under investigation, but that fire officials have determined it was started by something similar to a short in the electrical system.

Authorities speculated the fire began when an electrician tried to change a fuse. The electrician was one of the five killed.

Dot Bissell, general manager of Southeastern Travelers Exhibitors Inc. on the sixth floor, said power was out and a repairman had gone to investigate when she heard four loud blasts.


'There was an orange light that illuminated everything and then black smoke everywhere,' Bissell said. 'It was a tremendous, unbelievable explosion.

'We don't know how the electrician could have lived through that. The smoke was so thick that I could not see my desk in the office,' she said. 'It started coming in from the ceiling and very rapidly filled the room. We broke out the window so we could breathe.'

Others said they saw sparks flying and smoke billowing from a utility room.

'I thought we were gone,' said Mike Blackman, a worker trapped inside. 'Smoke was just billowing. We just waited by the window, trying to breathe -- trying to stay alive.'

More than a dozen fire engines and scores of ambulances and police cars converged on the burning building. Ambulances screamed up and down Peachtree Street for about three hours, and thousands of onlookers gathered around the scene.

At least seven of the more than 100 firefighters battling the blaze were taken to hospitals suffering from smoke inhalation and other injuries.

Firefighters crawled on their hands and knees and were often blinded by the thick smoke as they searched for victims.

'It was hard to see,' said firefighter Mike Banks, resting after a trip inside. 'I went through my second bottle of air. I just about dropped, myself.'


The mayor and occupants of the building hailed the rescue workers as heroes.

'They just worked themselves to the point of exhaustion,' Young said. 'I'm just grateful for their hard work and dedication in saving the lives of their fellow citizens.'

Firefighter W.A. Davis made several tiring trips up and down a ladder carrying people to safety.

'You get exhausted, but then you get your second wind and you keep on going,' he said. 'When we finally got all those people down that ladder -- I don't mind telling you -- I cried.'

Chamberlin said flames were contained on the sixth floor of the building, and smoke and heat damage spread through the entire 18,000 square-feet of the building's south tower.

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