Los Angeles High-Rise that Caught Fire Lacked Sprinklers

By Brian Melley and Stefanie Dazio | January 31, 2020

LOS ANGELES — A 25-story West Los Angeles apartment tower that caught fire, forcing firefighters to pluck stranded people from the rooftop and a ledge, had no sprinklers even though the same building burned seven years ago, authorities said.

Flames swept through apartments on the seventh floor of the Barrington Plaza on Wednesday morning.

Eleven people were treated, mostly for smoke inhalation. Seven of them, including a 3-month-old child, were sent to hospitals, mostly with smoke inhalation.

In addition, two firefighters received minor burns as, using bottled oxygen, they scrambled to reach the apartment where the blaze began.

“These firefighters were literally driven to their bellies halfway through that hallway,” fire Capt. Erik Scott said.

Tenants described trying to move down crowded, smoky stairwells.

Cecilee Mathieson tried to push past in her rush from her 25th floor penthouse. When she reached the floor on fire, she could see the orange glow under the door.

“I really thought I was going to die today,” Mathieson said hours later.

Some turned back and went to the roof instead, where helicopters moved in to rescue 15 people. Rescuers lowered themselves on cables to haul them to safety because the 1961 building had no rooftop helicopter landing site.

A ladder was used to rescue a man who clung to the outside of the building as flames raged in nearby apartments.

Scott said the 30-year-old man was “hanging out of the window on the ledge due to the intense heat inside of that building unit.” At first, Scott said, it appeared to firefighters that the man was threatening to jump but by using loudspeakers they “were able to calm that individual down” and rescue him, although he was hospitalized in critical condition.

Firefighters gave CPR to another 30-year-old man who was taken to the hospital in grave condition. There was no immediate update on his condition.

Hundreds of firefighters doused the fire but the entire building was red-tagged leaving 339 tenants displaced until at least Thursday morning when inspectors could check its safety. The building’s owners rented blocks of hotel rooms to temporarily house residents, Scott said.

Firefighters had been at an office building fire two blocks away when the blaze broke out sometime after 8 a.m. on Wilshire Boulevard on the edge of the tony Brentwood section of the city, allowing a rapid response.

The other fire was unrelated and caused by a welding accident, police said.

Gavyn Straus was swimming in the pool in the courtyard when he saw black smoke waft by. As the smoke grew rapidly, Straus knew it was no kitchen fire and he ran into the building dripping wet to alert staff.

A woman at the front desk was calling police, so he hopped on an elevator with a maintenance man to alert residents on the 8th floor, where they thought the fire was coming from. A man who had been sleeping answered the first door they pounded on and they realized they were above the blaze and ran for the stairs.

They were overwhelmed with smoke when they opened the door to the burning floor below.

“It was a black wall,” Straus said hours later as he stood barefoot on the sidewalk, still wearing his surf trunks, with a towel draped over his shoulders and goggles around his neck. “Someone ran out from that side and they were completely covered in black char and they could barely breathe.”

The person said their friend was still inside, but Straus said he couldn’t help because he couldn’t see anything and it was too hot.

Instead, he ran to the 21st floor, where he lives, to alert friends and other tenants he knew. No alarm had yet been sounded and he was surprised to hear laughter coming through the doors as people ate breakfast unaware of the danger below.

“Get out, there’s fire, get out,” he yelled.

More than 330 firefighters took about 90 minutes to knock down the blaze, which Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas termed suspicious.

However, Los Angeles police Capt. Randall Goddard said investigators hadn’t determined whether the fire was set by accident or on purpose and determining that could take “quite some time.”

The fire left windows blown out and heavy black smoke or burn marks on three sides of the building. Residents who fled in whatever they were wearing or could quickly get into _ some in pajamas and exercise clothes _ gathered on nearby street corners and looked up as helicopters hovered and hoisted rooftop evacuees and a small white dog to safety.

The building passed a fire inspection in June but it lacked internal fire sprinklers, which weren’t required when it was built, Scott said.

The complex has 240 units that range in rent from $2,350 to $3,695 per month, according to Zillow.

Some tenants wondered why sprinklers weren’t installed after a 2013 fire in the building injured several people and displaced more than 100.

“They should have put sprinklers in after the fire,” Liz Bowers told the Los Angeles Times.

Bowers said the building has many apartments that are used as Airbnb rentals and she has long complained to the building managers about the short-term tenants.

“They let everybody smoke,” she said. “You get all these people coming into party and smoke pot. The landlords don’t care.”

The building owners did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

About the photo: Fire and smoke damage is seen on the exterior of a residential building in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. Los Angeles firefighters rescued terrified residents from the rooftop of a 25-story high-rise apartment building where a fire broke out on a sixth-floor balcony and sent choking smoke billowing through the upper levels. (AP Photo Damian Dovarganes)

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