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Downtown's History Light on Big Fires

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, September 02, 2009, at 01:52PM
First Interstate Bank Fire -- May 4, 1988 Los Angeles Times / UCLA Library

Flames and smoke shoot from the 12th floor of the First Interstate Bank tower, now the AON Center.

With the attention of Los Angeles still focused on the Station Fire, which has now consumed more than 140,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest, it seems appropriate to take a search through the archives for major fires in Downtown's past.

Perhaps surprisingly, Downtown does not seem to have any comparison to the major blazes one thinks of with Chicago and San Francisco. While the neighborhood has had its share of building blazes, Downtown has a much stronger history of floods than fires.

Two events did stand out, though: the 1988 high-rise blaze in the First Interstate Bank tower and a 1942 fire that put a damper on Christmas spirits.

First Interstate Bank

At 10:37pm on May 4, 1988, fire broke out on the 12th floor of the 62-story First Interstate Bank tower, now known as the AON Center. Flames quickly spread up to the four floors above.

Fire crews were on scene in four minutes, and spent the next 3 1/2 hours battling the blaze. Alexander John Handy, 24, was the only person to die in the fire, trapped inside a freight elevator after going up to investigate a report of flames.

The tower had been built in 1974, before city codes requiring high-rises to have sprinklers. A sprinkler system was being installed at the time, but work was only 90% completed and unable to assist in the fire fight.

The cleanup took months. A June 10 article in the L.A. Times about the effort said that 900 cleaners were at work removing soot and debris and repairing damages. Furniture and computers were disassembled, thoroughly cleaned and then put back together.

The article said that the cleanup effort to date had used 500 ladders, 1,000 five-gallon buckets, 100 wheelbarrows, 100 demolition carts, 200 folding tables, 20,000 packages of cotton swabs and 12,000 pounds of cotton baby diapers.

Diapers?

"We have just about exhausted the whole diaper industry in the United States with this," said Greg Blackmon, vice president of Texas-based Blackmon-Mooring-Steamatic Catastrophe Inc., which is handling much of the cleanup work. "You can't use just any kind of rag on this soot ... because of lint. So we have expediters and purchasing people that have been combing the countryside" for diapers.

The building reopened on September 6, when First Interstate chairman Joseph J. Pinola reported for work at his top floor office.

A Yuletide Disaster at Union Station

The fire that took place at Union Station on December 12, 1942, may not have caused the same sort of damage the First Interstate blaze did, but it must have put a damper on Downtown's Christmas spirits.

7000 bags of mail -- more than 35 tons -- went up in smoke that day when a carelessly tossed cigarette set fire to a canvas tent under which they were being stored. Both incoming and outgoing mail was included.

Sleds, dolls, baby buggies, boxes of candy, clothing and jewelry were found when fire crews sorted through the packages looking for any lingering embers.

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