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

‘Skyscraper construction will never be the same again. Neither will San Francisco’

Four weeks on from the devastating fire that destroyed the world’s tallest skyscraper the Glass Tower, the death toll rose further yesterday with the passing of firefighter Ross Coleman. Coleman’s death at St. Mary’s Medical Centre takes the number of victims to over two hundred. News of another fatality prompted fresh comment from Duncan Enterprise’s Principal Architect Doug Roberts. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle Roberts stated ‘It seems like a never ending tragedy right now. I think it’s safe to say skyscraper construction will never be the same again. Neither will San Francisco for that matter.’

Roberts’ comments follow a week of revelations that have seen victim’s families lay blame for the fire squarely with the building’s construction company Duncan Enterprise. On Tuesday Fire Chief Mike O’Hallorhan confirmed further details regarding the source of the fire, stating that sub-standard wiring in the tower caused a fire in a storage room on the 81st floor. Faulty electrical installations are thought to have started numerous other fires in the building as the disaster unfolded, hampering efforts by the fire service to get the blaze under control.

Asked about the condition of the building’s electrics Roberts commented ‘My designs went well beyond the requirements of the current building code. Unfortunately, the designs were changed during construction. Whoever made that decision cost a lot of people their lives.’ Sub-contracting for the electrical outfitting at the Glass Tower was over seen by the son-in-law of Duncan Enterprise’s construction executive Jim Duncan, Roger Simmons. Simmons perished when the breeches buoy carrying him from the 135th floor to the neighbouring Peerless Building collapsed. Jim Duncan could not be contacted for comment.

Further eye witness accounts of the struggles atop the sixteen hundred foot tower also emerged this past week, including suggestions that Roger Simmons was the cause of the breeches buoy collapse that claimed his life. Barman John Sierra who was serving drinks to the gathered dignitaries in the Tower’s Promenade Room said ‘We’d just been told that the fire was only fifteen minutes away. You could feel the heat through the floor, it was so hot up there. The smoke was getting worse to. Simmons then made a move for the breeches buoy. I saw him fighting off at least four other men. Senator Parker stepped in to help calm things but he got pulled out the window in the struggle.’

Financier Tom Robinson, also part of the party to celebrate the Tower’s opening, stated ‘Every time I saw Simmons during the night he had a drink in his hand. Soon as Roberts gave us the bad news that we only had a few minutes left and they were going to blow the rooftop water tanks, Simmons dashed for the rope chair that was our only way down. I saw him throw punches. There were about three or four men still fighting on the chair when it left the window. Next thing I know there was an explosion and the chair was gone.’

Speaking for the first time since his release from hospital at a press conference on Wednesday morning, Mayor Robert Ramsay would not be drawn to comment on Simmonds actions, instead praising the brave efforts of the San Franciso fire department. Giving specific commendation to Chief O’Hallorhan, Mayor Ramsay said ‘I can’t thank Chief O’Hallorhan enough. If wasn’t for his bravery the death toll would have undoubtedly been higher. I also can’t thank him enough for saving my beautiful wife Paula. It’s a debt I’ll never be able to repay.’

The first Chief on the scene when the alarm was raised at 7.10pm by the Tower’s security chief Harry Jernigan, Chief O’Hallorhan mounted an audacious rescue of ten party goers and one of his own firemen when he landed on the top of a stranded scenic elevator on the 110th floor. Witnesses looked on in horror as fireman Mark Powers appeared to fall from the roof of the elevator as it dangled 1,200 feet above the street below. O’Hallorhan held on to his colleagues hands as the naval helicopter sent to aid a rooftop rescue lowered the elevator to the ground.

Just after midnight O’Hallorhan returned to the same helicopter to land on the Tower roof to plant explosives and dramatically bring about the end of the inferno that had by now all but consumed the building. Calls have already been made by numerous survivors of the tragedy for the eleven year Fire Chief to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to US civilians. When asked about his heroics at the Wednesday press conference O’Hallorhan replied modestly ‘I was just doing my job. That’s what I’m paid to do.’

As shares in Duncan Enterprise continue to plummet, the future of the Glass Tower remains uncertain. Mayor Ramsay stated ‘We need to let the fire and police investigators and the structural surveyors finish their job before we make any decisions. We also need to make sure we take in to account the wishes of families who lost loved ones in the tower. It’s not a decision we can take lightly.’ Susan Bigelow whose husband and Duncan Enterprise Head of Marketing and Public Relations Dan Bigelow was found deceased on the 65th floor, stated following the press conference ‘They need to pull the Tower down. The city and those of us that have lost loved ones don’t need a constant reminder. We need a memorial, something to honour those that have passed.’

Leaving the press conference, a member of the Glass Tower resident’s association, set up just days before the opening ceremony tragedy, spoke of his disappointment in the response from Duncan Enterprise. Wishing to remain anonymous, the Tower apartment owner stated ‘Obviously thoughts are with those that perished and the families they left behind. It’s terrible what happened. But there are also those that have paid large deposits to Duncan Enterprise for premises up in that Tower, tenants and business owners. We haven’t heard one word from them yet. What’s going to happen to our apartments? Will we get a refund? Did they have insurance? They haven’t answered any of these questions yet. All we’ve had is silence.’

Words by Thomas Robinson – For more on the story see Page 8 ‘Stories from Inside The Glass Tower’ and Page 10 ‘Anatomy of A Disaster’

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