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Fire Department, Insurance Experts Lean Toward Electrical Cause

July 18, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Managers of the Empire State Building were accused Tuesday of two city code violations for defects in an alarm system that allegedly slowed firefighters response to a fire that injured 38 people.

It was unclear how much time firefighters lost in getting to the fire Monday at the 102-story tower, said John Mulligan, a spokesman for the Fire Department.

The code violations, which Mulligan said were less serious than criminal charges, can bring fines of $500 to $1,000. The summonses were scheduled to be answered in Manhattan Criminal Court, which handles misdemeanor cases, on Sept. 6.

An official of building manager Helmsley-Spear Inc., who refused to give his name, denied wrongdoing.

He said building employees spotted smoke before there was enough to set off alarms, tripped an alarm manually and then met firefighters when they arrived.

One of the two summonses issued alleged that the building’s alarm system failed to flash notice of the fire to a central alarm station, which then would have notified the Fire Department, said Mulligan.

The second summons, Mulligan said, alleged that the building’s fire safety director, who was supposed to brief arriving firefighters, was nowhere to be found when the first fire companies arrived in the lobby of the building.

Fire alarms sounded on only two floors during the blaze because the system is designed to avoid panic in the landmark skyscraper where 10,000 people work, Fire Commissioner Carlos Rivera said earlier Tuesday.

Rivera said that despite the limited alarms and a public address system that failed after an initial announcement, people were ″never in any serious danger″ during the Monday evening fire.

The fire broke out in offices on the 51st floor - halfway up the tower that for decades was the world’s tallest, and still symbolizes New York to millions around the world.

Except for a few open or boarded-up windows on the north and south sides, and some smoke and water damage on the floors just above and below the burned area, the 59-year-old building was operating normally the day after the fire, according to Robert Udowitz, a spokesmen for management.

Office workers filled the elevators as usual and hundreds of tourists from around the world bought tickets to the 86th-floor observation deck, where they peered into the haze, pointing out such sights as the taller World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, Central Park to the north, and the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2, which docked at its Hudson River pier this morning.

Swiss tourist Cesare Carrara and his wife Helena, visiting the building with their three children, expressed surprise when told about the fire.

″We didn’t know about it,″ Mrs. Carrara said. ″But a lot of things happen. I know an airplane once crashed into the building.″

She was referring to the 1945 crash of a B-25 bomber into the 78th floor.

Thirty-four firefighters and four civilians were injured in what Rivera called ″an extremely difficult fire, because of the intense heat and intense smoke″ that was contained inside the building by its cinderblock and brick walls.

″It was a blowtorch type of atmosphere,″ he said at a news conference.

Firefighter Tim Farley was admitted to New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center with first and second degree burns on his head, ear and arm, according to hospital administrator Sol Torres.

Chief Fire Marshal John Stickevers said investigators had not found the cause, but were ″leaning toward an electrical fire″ after inspecting the fire scene. He said there were ″no suspicious circumstances.″

The four-room office suite where Monday’s fire broke out is occupied by Japra Industries Ltd. Inc., a company that deals in chain-link fences. Fire officials said nobody was there when the fire broke out about 6:30 p.m.

He said investigators would try to find out why the public address system apparently failed after the first warning was broadcast.

Gary Lewi, a spokesman for the building management, said he could not comment on the reported PA system failure, but said the alarm system worked as intended. It goes off only on the fire floor and the floor above ″so as not to induce panic,″ he said.

Charles Guigno, manager of the building, and engineering director Albert Goffe said the system under which alarms sound only on the fire-affected floor and the one above is in accordance with Fire Department regulations.

Although most people who work in the building had gone for the day, about 1,000 were evacuated by stairways and elevators, including tourists, with the last leaving about 10:20 p.m., Mulligan said.