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Sawtelle High-Rise Burns For 2nd Time In 7 Years; Two Seriously Injured

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Los Angeles city firefighters work to rescue a person clinging to a high-rise apartment building in West L.A. after a fire broke out on the sixth floor Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. Courtesy LAFD
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Residents of a 25-story high-rise in the Sawtelle neighborhood had to evacuate after heavy fire broke out this morning, injuring eleven people, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.

One adult is in grave condition and another was critically injured. Fire officials said a 3-month-old baby was among those injured. Some of those hurt were burned, but authorities said the majority suffered smoke inhalation. In all, seven people were taken to a hospital.

“The fire’s cause remains categorized as ‘suspicious’ and remains the focus of an active investigation,” according LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey.

The building, called Barrington Plaza, is located at 11740 West Wilshire Boulevard near the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Stoner Avenue.

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The fire scorched a portion of the sixth floor and the dramatic scene played out live on local TV stations. Flames and smoke poured out of windows before firefighters brought it under control about 10 a.m.

Early eyewitness reports suggested people were leaping from the building, but fire officials now say they do not believe anyone jumped.

“We had two people that were contemplating jumping. We got on our public address system and let them know to stay there. We sent someone up the aerial ladder to address that,” said LAFD Deputy Chief Armando Hogan. “No one jumped.”

Yeshwanth Venketsh, who lives nearby, said he heard alarms and looked out his window to see “an incredible number of officers and firefighters.” He said he watched as firefighters used a ladder extended from a fire engine to reach a person hanging off the building.

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The streets near the fire are some of the most traffic-congested in the city, and the presence of emergency personnel made driving through the area difficult.

EVACUATION CENTER

The American Red Cross has established an evacuation center for residents displaced by the fire.

  • Westwood Recreation Center, 1350 South Sepulveda Blvd. (American Red Cross)

In addition, LAFD officials said the owner of Barrington Plaza has reserved a block of hotel rooms at several local hotels. Residents have been contacted.
THE INVESTIGATION

Investigators are treating the incident as suspicious because of the injuries, the fire’s origin and size, according to Los Angeles Police West Bureau Chief Justin Eisenberg.

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Another fire had broken out in the area at 6:30 a.m., and investigators are looking into both because of the close proximity and similar time frame. However, there was no indication yet that the two fires were connected, Eisenberg said at a late-morning press conference. The closeness of the fires did mean that firefighters were able to respond more quickly.

There have also been reports this morning that the apartment where the fire broke out was a frequent Airbnb rental, but Eisenberg said he had no information on that.

At an evening news conference, LAPD officials said it was too early in investigation to release any information. Investigators are still trying to figure out if it was intentionally set or an accident, a determination that may take a while.

Earlier in the day, fire officials had to wait for the rooms to cool down to allow for complete smoke removal before arson investigators could go in.

Police advised people to avoid the area of Wilshire and Barrington. The streets in this area are already some of the most traffic-congested in the city, and the presence of emergency personnel will make it worse today.

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THE BACKSTORY

It’s not the first time there’s been a fire at the complex. In October 2013, a fire filled the hallways of the complex with heavy smoke. A 2-year-old girl spent two weeks in intensive care after suffering second degree burns and severe smoke inhalation, an attorney for her family attorney said afterward.

In 2014, our newsroom reported Barrington Plaza was one of 60 older high-rise residential buildings in L.A. that don’t have sprinklers – and aren’t required to.

The story noted the buildings were homes to tens of thousands of people and explained:

“To understand why they don’t have sprinklers, you have to go back to 1974. That’s when the L.A. City Council – worried about cost — voted to require sprinklers only in new commercial and residential high rises. Any residential high rises constructed before 1943 are required to have sprinklers, so the council’s action meant high rises built during that 31-year period did not have to install sprinklers.”

Authorities said Wednesday night that the number of older high-rise buildings that lack sprinklers is now 55.

THE EMERGENCY RESPONSE

Four rescue-capable helicopters and more than 300 firefighting personnel responded, ultimately knocking down the fire around 10 a.m.

LA Fire Captain Erik Scott said city firefighters normally respond within five minutes, and in this case they were already in the area responding to the fire that broke out at 6:30 a.m.

Scott said firefighters faced challenging conditions, with winds gusting up to 35 mph and pushing flames on them as they crawled through the smoke-darkened units on their bellies. Those inside ultimately pulled out for safety reasons, as trucks and hose lines were used to spray and cool the fire from the outside. When the situation again became tenable, firefighters moved back inside, Scott said.

The fire impacted floors 5-8, but officials are still evaluating.

Scott said because of the time of day and day of the week, most residents were likely not home.

Officials had advised those residents who were in the building to go to the roof, where they could be rescued. Fire crews hoisted 15 people off the roof, taking them to the helipad at the nearby VA hospital for further evaluation.

Firefighters also searched floor-to-floor to ensure that everyone was evacuated.

HOW WE’RE COVERING THIS

Reporters David Wagner and Emily Guerin are on scene. Producers Lita Martinez, Megan Erwin, Brianna Flores and Jessica Flores have been monitoring the news and press conferences. LAist editors Brian Frank, Lisa Brenner and Ryan Fonseca have been keeping this story updated. Digital producer Elizabeth Robinson has been sharing live updates and refreshing social media channels.

This story will be updated. Check back for details.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the neighborhood.