Trade center fire alarms called OK Bells didn't sound, MPA is told, because no one pulled lever

1,000 evacuated Friday

Electrical conduits on 28th floor burned

tower remains closed

December 07, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Maryland Port Administration officials now say alarm systems in the 30- story World Trade Center in Baltimore's Inner Harbor worked properly after a small electrical fire forced an evacuation Friday.

The building remained closed yesterday, and people who had hoped to use the 27th-floor observation deck to view last night's Inner Harbor parade of lighted boats were disappointed. A reopening tomorrow remained uncertain yesterday.

Friday's 2: 16 p.m. fire triggered immediate responses from automatic sprinklers and silent smoke detectors on the 28th floor. The sprinkler system doused the fire, and the smoke detectors alerted building security guards in the front lobby and the Baltimore Fire Department, according to Sara Moriarty, a port administration spokeswoman, and Robert Huber, the agency's property manager. Emergency lights also worked, aiding people fleeing in the closed stairwells.

The audible bell alarm on the affected floor did not sound, however, said John Stevens, project manager for the building's maintenance contractor -- but only because no one pulled a manual lever to trigger it. The bell alarms were tested yesterday and sounded while a reporter visited the 28th floor.

A person is designated on each floor to pull those alarms in the event of a fire, said Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the skyscraper. No one pulled an alarm Friday.

Yoshitani said officials plan to make the alarms automatic. In the meantime, he said, tenants will be asked to review procedures in the event of fire to avoid misunderstandings about what to do.

On Friday, Yoshitani said it appeared that the alarm system failed. But yesterday, he said, "My reaction at the time was without benefit of a review of the situation at the time. In fact, the system functioned as designed."

Yesterday, as officials tried to get the building back in order and determine what happened, Moriarty said all the alarms would be re-examined carefully. "We're going to look at every single system," she said.

When the audible alarm is triggered, it warns people on the affected floor, plus those one floor above and below under the theory that those are the people in the most danger, officials said. The sprinklers and smoke alarms are automatic. All three trigger red lights on a panel in the front lobby security station. The manual and the automatic alarms call the city Fire Department. The sprinklers do not go off on an entire floor -- only over the fire.

The cause of the small fire remained undetermined yesterday, as workers replaced the destroyed electrical box that burned. Three boxes on the 28th floor are conduits for electricity entering the huge building, and the one that burned controlled the elevators and the general power.

Some power restored

The fire was contained in a closetlike room off a hallway in the offices of the Chapman Co., Investment Bankers. The firm's offices appeared undamaged at noon yesterday, however, and only a few signs of water and a faint odor of smoke remained.

The midafternoon fire cut all electrical power, stopped elevators and forced more than 1,000 people into the street.

Work crews cleaned signs of smoke and water damage yesterday, and normal electrical power was restored to the lower 17 floors by noon. Higher floors were being restored one at a time.

A slow, steady stream of people crossed the building's lobby yesterday, workers hoping to retrieve belongings from their offices after Friday's hurried evacuation mixed with occasional tourists hoping to get to the 27th-floor observation deck.

"I smelled rubber burning and heard water dripping in the service elevator," Kyle Ray, 23, who works for a marketing firm on the 22nd floor, said of Friday's fire as he waited to retrieve papers.

Miriam Barrios, in town from Montreal for the 32nd annual Society for Leukocyte Biology conference at the Hyatt Regency, was disappointed about not being able to see the city from the observation deck. "Too bad," she said, grimacing.

Betty Deacon, a staff member of U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's who was rousted from the senator's second-floor offices Friday while interviewing scores of service academy applicants, was back yesterday, too.

"We made 100 calls last night, up until 11 p.m.," she said, canceling interviews scheduled for the weekend. "We don't know if our computer program is still there," she said, because of the power outage. If the data were lost, "that will be some 14-hour days next week," she said.

Tested in September

MPA spokeswoman Moriarty, who works on the 19th floor, said she called the front desk to see what was happening after the power went off, and left the building with everyone else. The evacuation was orderly and no one was injured.

"I can't remember a time when the power was off completely," she said. Huber, the property manager, said a general evacuation alarm would not be a good idea anyway. "You don't want to evacuate a 30-story building at one time," he said.

Stevens, the project manager, said the alarm systems are tested every three months and passed the last tests in September. Fire drills are also held quarterly, Moriarty said. The building's three alarm systems are designed to work independently.

Anyone with questions about when the building will reopen may call the Maryland Port Administration Police at 410-633-1066.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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