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Main » 2016 » March » 28 » Remembering the Towering Inferno - San Francisco Times 14.1.1974 - Part Two
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Remembering the Towering Inferno - San Francisco Times 14.1.1974 - Part Two

Stories From Inside The Glass Tower

The images of San Francisco’s newest temple to progress going up in flames are so powerful it’s hard to believe it has already been a month since the Glass Tower brought tragedy to the Union Square district of the City by the Bay.  In the four weeks since the disaster those involved have slowly begun to tell their stories, that valuable part of the grieving process when talking about events can ease just a little bit of the pain.

The press conference this past Wednesday afternoon drew more than just the usual faces from the city’s media outlets. That it was held at City Hall, just five blocks south west of the Tower, added extra melancholy to the proceedings. As if anyone might forget why they were there, the smell of smoke still lingered outside on the front steps. It was fitting to that the Arthur Brown Jnr. building replaced the previous city hall that was destroyed during the last fire to leave its mark on the city in 1906.

Pic 1 - The only known photo from inside the Glass Tower's Promenade Room on the night of 14th December 1973, taken by bass player Hank Richards

In the large crowd that gathered to hear Mayor Ramsey and Senator John Tunney speak, the latter taking office following the death of Senator Gary Parker in the Tower disaster, were survivors and family members of the deceased. They were eager to hear what the luminaries had to say, along with the first reports from the lead fire and police investigators. They were also keen to share their own stories from the day, and the gathered press corps were more than willing to lend an ear. Notes were taken, Dictaphones held, nightmares relived, and tears shed.

Pic 2 - Duncan Enterprise Construction Executive Jim Duncan and Contracts Director the late Roger Simmons pose for the press on the front steps of the Glass Tower.

The first person I spoke to was firefighter Paul Preston. Assigned to Engine 1 out of the South of Market District Firehouse, Paul and his comrades responded within minutes of the fire alarm being raised, their station just a couple of blocks away. Rescue Squad 1 also responded from Paul’s firehouse and together the crews made the first venture up to floor 81. Relieving one of the Tower’s security staff who managed to get an internal hose on the fire, Paul was the first firefighter to tackle the blaze.

I could just about see in to the storage room where we believed the fire started. There were tins of paint and other industrial looking solvents and cleaners about, the sort of accelerants you really don’t want. Little wonder the fire took hold so quickly. It was hard to tell how long it had been going before we got there, hour or so maybe. 81 didn’t look too bad when I got there. What we didn’t know at the time was that the fire had spread upwards more than it spread outwards. I got the first proper line on it while the Rescue 1 guys spread out to make as many grabs as they could.’

‘The heat was pretty intense. We were getting a lot of radiant extension on the other side of the fire but we were struggling to get another line round to that side. Still, I thought we were making some progress. The Chief came to relieve me on the tip. Literally just after that, the elevator doors across the hall from us opened. The fresh oxygen in the car created a backdraft and sucked flames in to the elevator. The poor folks in there had nowhere to go. They had no chance. Even over the fire I could hear them screaming. I could see people in flames. Chief tried to hit them with the line, but the doors were shutting again. I’ll never forget that, it was terrible.’

Preston was relieved for a ten minute break after that before returning to floors 83 and 84 to tackle the fire from there. The elevator that opened on in front of him on 81 returned all the way to the top of the Tower, opening on horrified party guests in the Promenade Room. Singer Maureen Kasha, who was at the party performing with her band, described to me the moment.

We knew there was a small fire in the building but we were told it was many floors below us and under control. As a precaution though they decided to move the party down to the lobby. We were queuing to get the elevators down when Mr. Duncan shouted to everyone that we had to use the scenic elevator instead as there was a danger the internal ones might open on the floors where the fire was. As soon as he said that the doors opened again and people rushed in. Mr. Duncan and others tried to stop them. It was too late though. We all backed away from the lifts and went to queue by the scenic elevator. Suddenly a woman screamed and we all looked over. It was a horrible sight, just horrific. The elevator had returned and a man staggered out. He was on fire. He stumbled over and some men ran over to put out the flames but it was too late. Some women fainted. I could see inside the elevator and there were bodies piled up, all of them burnt. I had to look away. I can’t imagine the horror in that elevator as it rose back up the building, it must have been dreadful. Mr. Duncan went over to close the elevator doors.’

Pic 3 - Photo taken from the neighbouring Kearny Building as the first fire engines arrive at the Glass Tower at approximately 7.15pm and crowds look on; the crowds were soon moved back as glass and debris began to fall from the Tower.

When fire crews eventually made it to the Promenade Room the next morning they found eleven dead in the Promenade Room elevator. It was a turning point in the evening for those celebrating the Tower’s inauguration, as Maureen explained.

Before that people didn’t seem to pay much notice to what was going on. We were queuing to head down in the elevators but there wasn’t a rush and some people were still seated and drinking. After seeing that though everything changed. There wasn’t panic but everyone was anxious. Some women were crying, a couple of people were sick. You could smell the burnt body so some men moved him to a side room away from the party. I saw a couple of people head for the stairs. When they opened the door to the stairwell I could see it was already full of thick smoke. I don’t know what happened to them, whether they got down or not. The scenic elevator was very slow so we all drew lots as to who got to go first. The women drew their numbers first, then the men.’

Maureen was lucky enough to be in the first group down in the scenic elevator. Only two groups made it down in the scenic elevator, 24 people in all, before the electrics serving the elevator cut out. With the 36 that had already escaped via the internal elevators and the 12 that perished in the elevator fire, around 228 people still remained trapped atop the tower. Duncan Enterprise architect and the man who designed the Glass Tower Doug Roberts joined those in the Promenade an hour later with two children and a woman he had rescued from the residential apartments below.  Firefighters Scott Perry and Mark Powers also joined those at the top of the Tower having climbed the stairs from floor 81 only to be cut off by explosions that destroyed the stairwells. Scott spoke with me after the press conference.

We had to use C4 explosives to access the Promenade Room. Builders had spilt cement against one of the fire escape doors and it had set solid. Doug had helped three civilians up the stairs and had managed to crawl through to the other side via service ducts. There was a lot of panic inside the room when we got in there. I don’t think anyone in was in charge. Doug and I helped bring a bit of order. We then got word that they were going to be airlifting people out via the roof Doug when up with a group of twelve ladies. Pretty soon after we heard a large explosion and saw flaming debris fall past the windows. Everyone hurried back down from the roof real upset.’

Pic 4 - Medical staff tend to the casualties in the lobby of the Glass Tower including evacuated residents and injured firefighters.

Scott and his fellow fireman Mark helped set up the breeches buoy that allowed another 31 people and the last of the female partygoers to escape. I asked Scott if he knew what happened on the roof with the rescue helicopter.

I’m not sure. Doug said the crosswinds up there were really strong and that two ladies had panicked and ran for the chopper. The pilot had to steer away to avoid them and went straight in to the barriers around the helipad apparently. I think some people were still confident that we would be rescued by firemen coming up the stairs. From the explosions we witnessed though and the way the fire was spreading I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I only shared that news with Doug and Mr. Duncan. We didn’t want to panic people. The breeches buoy worked better than I thought it was going to, though it was slow. Still, I thought we’d all make it out that way.’

Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to be the case, as Scott found out when Doug Roberts received the final phonecall from Chief O’Hallorhan. Roberts had little choice but to share the news with the remaining 190 or so all male survivors.

My heart sunk when I heard the news. There was a panic and I heard some guys rushed the breeches buoy. I didn’t see it though, I’d slumped down in a chair thinking about what was about to happen. I was sure the explosives would just blow out the top floors of the Tower and that would be that. Doug went off to meet the Chief on the roof and I set about cutting up the rope we had left from the breeches buoy so people could start tying themselves down. The fire had broken through to the Promenade Room by then, over on the far side by the lifts. I tried getting a line on it but it didn’t seem to do much. In the end we left it, tied ourselves down and waited. The explosions came in waves, first the ceiling went and then the tanks. There was debris everywhere. It’s a miracle anyone got out alive. In the end the only injuries I got apart from some smoke inhalation was some cuts on my face and hands from breaking the windows for the breeches buoy.’

Others weren’t so lucky. The explosives that destroyed the two ceiling above the Promenade Room and the large water tanks created a dangerous amount of debris, much of it washed through on a veritable tidal wave. Hank Richards, bass player for Maureen Kasha’s band, described to me the moment.

The explosions shook the whole tower. My ears popped and I couldn’t hear much for a few moments. The ceiling in the Promenade started collapsing in sections. I looked across at my buddy Tom (piano player in the band) and he looked as petrified as I did. Then this mass of concrete just fell on him, huge beams. It came out of nowhere, and he was gone. He didn’t stand a chance.’

Pic 5 - Chief O'Hallorhan brings one of the Tower's scenic elevator safely to ground with help from a Navy helicopter saving the lives of ten civilians and firefighter Mark Powers.

Taking a moment to gather his thoughts and compose himself Hank continued. ‘I thought I was a goner for sure. Beams and concrete were falling everywhere, the fire to my left was getting worse. I made myself as small as I could. Then there were more explosions and the water started pouring though. It felt nice at first as it was so hot up there. The cold took my breath away but I didn’t mind. The flames to my left disappeared. But then the water got stronger and stronger and it was hard to hold yourself in place against the force. The floor beneath me was shaking. I just held on to the two ends of rope around me, making sure the knot was tight. I got tossed around like a rag doll.’

I saw guys getting washed away. Nearly all the windows were blown out by the blast and some poor bastards got washed right out the windows. I saw guys getting thrown everywhere. I thought the water would never end, seemed to go on forever. Eventually it subsided. I managed to get up. I checked on Tom but he was dead. There was about a foot of water on the ground and the floor seemed real fragile in places, like it was going to give way. Me and another guy checked on some of the other people about. Some were dead, some were injured. There were others that were hugging and cheering. Guess they were just glad to be alive. I was still scared though, I knew we weren’t out of the woods yet.’

Of the 190 men left in the Promenade Room 85 were killed as a result of the water tank blasts. The resulting total saved from the original 300 guests and staff celebrating the Glass Tower’s dedication in the Promenade Room was 196. These lives, and those of the other residents evacuated from the Tower, came at a cost. The number of Tower fatalities rose to 200 yesterday with the passing of fireman Ross Coleman, who succumbed to burns sustained when tackling the fire on floor 83. The Light Rescue 5 firefighter joined the other 9 who had already given their lives battling to save others in the Tower. It’s the second serious incident in to hit the US fire service following the Doxol Disaster in Kingman Arizona last July. Scott O’Hallorhan, whose father Fire Chief Mike O’Hallorhan was one of the heroes on the night, spoke with me after the press conference.

The whole San Francisco fire department is devastated. Everyone knew someone who lost a buddy or who was injured. Everyone knows the risks going in but it’s still tough to lose a guy on a job, let alone ten. High rise fires are the worst. As my Dad says, there’s no sure way to fight a fire above the seventh floor.’

Pic 6 - Police officers struggle to keep the press and onlookers back behind a safety cordon as plastic sheets are placed over the bodies of the deceased.

Scott explained how close he came to catastrophe himself as the fires in the building began to spread out of control. ‘We were up around 85 I think it was. I was with the Chief and he grabbed me and two other guys to head down to 65. We’d heard another fire had broken out on that floor and we needed to get there quick to check out how serious it was. We took one of the few working elevators but only got a couple of floors when there was an explosion. It sounded far away but it knocked out the power. The Chief got up on roof of the car to check things out, then we joined him. He said the only way down was to abseil down the lift shaft. I hadn’t abseiled since training school and got a bit jittery. My Dad has a dry sense of humour and even though he’s my Dad he’s still the Chief so he says ‘”You’d better go first then, case you drag any of us with you”. That set me straight.’

Just as Scott was gearing up though, he got a reminder of just how real the danger around them was. ‘I was hooked up and about to drop down when we heard a noise above us. Out of nowhere one of our guys falls right past, in flames. He’s not screaming or shouting, just falling. He lands on the roof of the elevator about twenty floors below. It was horrible. I spoke to one of the other guys a bit later who was with him. He said an explosion around a junction box had knocked a large hole in the wall right in to the lift shaft. They were getting a line going when the fire just ran on them suddenly and caught the guy. Before they could get to him to beat the flames down he walked right through the hole in the wall. Could have been any one of us up there that got caught.’

The story is typical of the random luck, some of it good, some of it bad, that people encountered during the night. I spoke to others who told me their stories after the press conference, some relying on split second decisions to catch a final elevator down to safety, and some who relied on the luck of a lottery draw in the Promenade Room to be one of the first down from the 135th floor. One of those was Leoda Janssen. Having only been discharged from hospital a few days prior, Leoda wanted to attend the conference in person in order to try and gain some closure.

I’ve been having nightmares ever since that night, dreaming that I’m still stuck in the Promenade Room. There are things I saw that will live with me forever, like that poor poor man who came out of the elevator on fire. I’ll never forget that for as long as I live. It was terrible.’

Pic 7 - Chief O'Hallorhan exits the Glass Tower for the final time having helped extinguish many of the blazes on the upper floors. Bodies of firefighters who gave their lives during the night lay with the helmets by the Tower entrance.

As Leoda takes a few minutes, I ask her how she sustained her injuries. ‘I was lucky enough to get a good number in the lots draw they did. But then the scenic elevator stopped and it seemed like we wouldn’t be getting down at all. Mr. Roberts then told me they were going to try airlifting us from the roof, so we followed him upstairs. It was so windy up there you couldn’t hear what people was saying. I saw a couple of ladies in front of me run for the helicopter so I ran to follow them. As I got to the helipad though the helicopter dropped to its side and exploded. I got blown off my feet and I felt a great heat on my side, like someone had opened an oven door. The other two ladies scrambled back to the stairs and I saw Mr. Roberts swatting at flames on one of the girls dresses. I picked myself up and ran back down to. It wasn’t until I got back down to the Promenade Room that I realised my left arm and back was badly burned. People brought wet towels and ice from the bar which helped a bit.’

Leoda eventually escaped the Tower via the breeches buoy. ‘I was the third lady to go. I didn’t want to leave my husband. It (the breeches buoy) didn’t seem safe enough to me but there wasn’t much choice by then. It was so steep and the other building seemed to so far away. We had just a lap belt to hold us in to the frame, it didn’t feel like enough. As soon as the frame left the tower it was bouncing and swinging in the wind. I really didn’t feel safe and screamed most of the way down. I could see just how bad things were the further out I got. The fire was much closer than we thought and there were fires up and down the building, whole floors just engulfed. Glass was being blown out and falling down to the street. I’m sure I saw someone fall from one of the windows half way down, though I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t like to look.’

Pic 8 - Survivors and pick their way through the aftermath as firefighters continue in to the Tower to extinguish the last of the remaining fires.

After making it across to the Peerless Building Leoda made it down to the street below and the waiting ambulances. She refused to be taken to hospital though until she knew the fate of her husband still trapped up in the Promenade Room. Fortunately Trevor Janssen emerged some hours later and the pair travelled to hospital together, overwhelmed by how lucky they were to have survived. Others were not so lucky though. The final survivor I spoke to was 74 year old investment broker Harlee Claiborne who was attending the party with his friend Lisolette Jones.

Lisolette and I hadn’t known each other very long. The dedication party was meant to be the evening we got to know each other better, and the evening started so very well. We were enjoying drinks and the fabulous views from the tower. We even had a dance together. When they said they we needed to move down to the lobby I lost touch with Lisolette and she found herself in one of the elevators. Things got worse for those of us left and I thought I’d never see her again. All I could think about was how well we had gotten on and how much I wanted to see her again. Then suddenly there she was. Turned out she had gone to check on some neighbour friends to see that they got out ok and ended up having to return to the Promenade Room with Mr. Roberts because the way down was blocked.’

Sadly for Lisolette and Harlee the reunion was short lived. Lisolette’s death became the tragic focal point of the disaster when WYS news, broadcasting live from the roof of the neighbouring Kearny Building, caught the dramatic moment when an explosion caused the scenic elevator Lisolette was riding in to sheer away from its moorings. As the elevator swung outwards from the building Lisolette tumbled through one of its windows and fell tragically to her death.  Shocked viewers watched at home, as WYS news anchor John Balinger struggled to hide his emotions. The network was flooded with complaints.

Harlee declined to comment on Lisolette’s death. ‘Other people lost more than I did that day. I just wished we could have had more time together. There was so much more I wanted to say to her. I’ll never get the chance though. It fills me with such sadness’

Pic 9 - Fire Chief Mike O'Hallorhan stopping to talk with Duncan Enterprise Principal Architect Doug Roberts and his partner Vogue magazine writer Susan Franklin. Like O'Hallorhan, Roberts was instrumental in saving a number of lives in the Tower and successfully destroying the Tower's water tanks.

Story by Frank Stern

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