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Building still closed day after skyscraper blaze

Tuesday, August 31, 2010
A fire at the JPMorgan Chase Bank building in downtown Houston quickly grew to four alarms Monday night as firefighters rushed to get water to the upper levels of the structure.
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New details were released late Tuesday afternoon into the skyscraper fire in downtown Houston last night. Several issues at the scene made the job extra tough for firefighters.

Right now, we still don't know what caused the massive fire on the 27th floor of the historic JP Morgan Chase Bank building in downtown Houston. We brought you live coverage of the fire last night on Eyewitness News at 10pm and now we are learning more about what was going on inside.

Firefighters feared the tunnel system might have been threatened, but it was not. Water was leaking from a pipe with a failed gasket, but that was concentrated just in the Chase Bank building basement. The foot or so of water was pumped out and any flooding was avoided.

It was a 4-alarm fire, complicated by a few things that went wrong-or weren't in place. Part of the building has a sprinkler system, and by code it has until 2017 before all floors have to have sprinklers.

The 27th floor where the fire began did not have sprinklers, and then there was a stand water pipe that didn't work. All of it contributed to water problems in fighting the fire.

"Yes, that's the building's responsibility to get it retrofitted and repaired," said Rick Flanagan, Acting Houston Fire Chief.

The arson investigation is underway. It started in or near the offices of a volunteers lawyers association in a room said to have several potential sources of ignition.

"Computer equipment, IT equipment - we have to really get in and look at each piece, which you have to remember is almost totally destroyed," said Chief Gabe Cortez of HFD Arson.

One thing firefighters didn't have to deal with was building integrity. The Chase Bank building began life in 1929 as the Gulf Oil building. It was another Houston landmark built by Jesse Jones who helped pull the country out of the Great Depression as part of the Roosevelt cabinet.

The building's trademark art deco design, its opulent bank lobby that once housed Texas Commerce Bank is still intact today. Damage to the first floor, which also houses the Houston Preservation Alliance, is said to be minimal.

"As far as what I can see on the lower floors and the main part of the building, it looks fine. I'm sure anything can be repaired," said Ramona Davis, Houston Preservation Alliance.

A lot of remediation work is still underway. No word yet on when all floors of the building will be reopened.

Earlier Tuesday

It's a day of investigating and assessing damage following a big fire at a landmark Houston skyscraper. The blaze at the JPMorgan Chase Bank building Monday night was confined to the 27th floor, but it still took hundreds of firefighters to put out the flames. The good news is there were no major injuries.

Less than 24 hours after the fire, the building remained closed. But some workers were allowed inside Tuesday morning to retrieve belongings.

The building is actually where three buildings come together, so people who work in the unaffected areas were allowed up very briefly to retrieve belongings.

Cleanup started well before sunrise Tuesday after the 27th story fire broke out late Monday night.

"We raced down here, pushed through the crowd and tried to get as close as we could to find out what was going on," said David Mandell, Executive Director of the Houston Volunteer Lawyers.

Mandell works in the area where the fire started. His organization is the pro bono arm of the Houston Bar Association and serves 14,000 Houstonians every year.

"We were concerned about the impact it would have on our low-income clients," Mandell said.

Smoke poured into the night sky, requiring the strength of some 200 firefighters, six of whom were injured in the blaze from either smoke inhalation or heat exhaustion.

"We called our manager and they said there was no structural damage or damage to our part of the building, so I came to work," said Laurie Funk, who works in the building.

As word of the fire spread, so did confusion for people who work there in the form of texts and emails.

"This is my second day at work at JPMorgan. They said the building caught on fire, so just don't come in. I thought someone was playing a gag," said John Keeton.

However, when Keeton saw it for himself and realized this was no joke, he, like many others, headed back home, with no indication of when he may be back to work in his building.

"I'm not sure. Maybe go have lunch with my wife or something like that," said Keeton.

The Houston Volunteer Lawyers is up and running at a secondary location.

Arson investigators are working to determine how the fire started.

The downtown tunnel is open, but there is still no access to it from the bank building.

An HFD spokesperson tells us all six of the injured firefighters are out of the hospital and appear to be doing well.

(Copyright ©2014 KTRK-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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