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Ponet Square Hotel Fire
1249 South Grand Avenue
September 13, 1970
The Ponet Square Hotel Fire
Times photo by Frank Q. Brown
THE PONET SQUARE
.The Old Story
An unsprinklered basement underlaid the north half of the building. Most of this was once a ballroom, with an unpierced division wall cutting it off from a rear boiler-room. The ballroom was now unused space as local codes forbid combustibles in unsprinklered basements in the fire district involved.
The first floor (12,000 square feet) completely covers the lot, with the exception of an areaway providing egress from the rear center of the building to a parking lot on the north. The south half of the first floor housed a commercial occupancy selling mobil homes and tools and machinery. Most of the space was used for storage. The hotel occupied the north half of the first floor, with a row of rooms along the north exterior wall and along the north half of the west exterior wall. The hotel entrance was off Grand, and led to a lobby with an eleven-foot ceiling.
Standing in the lobby entrance and looking west toward the rear of the building, one would have seen beyond the public area of the building, left to right: the elevator, the stairs to the second floor, and the hotel desk. Behind the desk was an eight-wooden partition which, with a similar partition on its right, had been used to section off the southwest corner of the original ornate lobby. This 12 by 22-foot area was used for linen storage and provided access to the former ballroom-basement stairs. The fire originated in the linen room.
A hall on the north of the linen room ran back to a north-south hall serving the rooms on the west wall. The south end of the north-south hall exited to a hall that ran west to the rear hotel exit near the center of the west wall. Near the point where these last two halls joined, stairs ran up to join the lobby stairs to the second floor at a mid-height landing. This stair, the elevator and the exterior fire-escape drop ladders were the means of egress from the second floor.
The second, third and fourth floors (11,000 square feet each) were nearly identical and essentially u-shaped, with the base of the U on Grand Avenue. The north and south wings were constant in width so that a "V" shaped light well opened to the west and one could look out over the abutting one-story commercial. The rooms were served by an H-shaped hall system. The two east-west halls looked out windows to the west and led out windows to exterior fire escapes on the east. The north-south hall started at the southern east-west hall but crossed the northern east-west hall all the way to the north wall, where it provided access to stairs leading to the roof. A second set of stairs near the south end of the north-south hall went up from the second to the fourth floor. Most of the rooms were built as two-room suites with kitchen and bath. Each of the two rooms were entered from a common short corridor off the main hall. The bath was entered off the sort corridor. The kitchen opened off one of the rooms. (As used at the time of the fire, each room was separately rented with bath privileges, as was any other room large enough to hold a bed.) The baths and kitchens were next to the halls and the rooms were on exterior or light-well walls.
A two-room penthouse suite served by the elevator was located on the roof between the light well and the Grand Avenue building wall.
The building's exterior walls were brick, with lime mortar and no reinforcement. The two street walls had a veneer of finish brick laid against a waterproofing building felt, with some ties to the main structure. In 1951 the parapet walls on both streets were removed to roof level and replaced by a reinforced three-foot concrete tie beam. (This probably prevented wall collapse. The veneer brick fell away in sheets, and all brick separated during demolition.) The light-well exterior walls were wood stud and stucco.
The first-floor commercial area was wood post and girder construction. All hotel occupancy interior walls were wood stud. All floor-ceiling joists were 16 inches and two or three inches thick, depending on span. Interior walls and ceilings were plaster on wood lathe. The wood roof deck with "built-up" roof was supported by 2"x8" rafters laid over a system of wooden trusses.
The stairways were open.
Most kitchens and baths were served by vertical vents. Eleven vents were triangularly shaped, 6.25 square feet in area, and served a single room on each floor, with one also serving a first-floor bath. Eight vents were triangularly shaped, 12.5 square feet in area and served tow rooms on each upper floor, with one also serving two first-floor rooms.
One vent was square, 6.25 feet in area, served baths or rooms on each of its sides on each upper floor and was open to the lobby ceiling directly above the linen room point of origin. Each room served, opened to the shaft through a three-foot square (the square vent openings were smaller) wood, double-hung sash with plain glass. The ceiling over kitchens, baths and abutting room closets was furred down 18 inches with the furred space open to the non-fire stopped 2"x16" joists above, thus exposing most of the joist channels. The furred space was open to the vertical vents through 18"x36" louvers. All vertical vents were open to the attic and terminated on the roof beneath a metal cover.
The furred spaces over kitchens and baths was separated from halls and rooms by a single thickness of wood lathe and plaster.
The temperature was 64 degrees Fahrenheit, relative humidity 78, and there was a slight breeze not over five miles an hour from the southwest.
Background on the Fire Department
In the City of Los Angeles the command levels for fire fighting and ambulance forces are: Chief Engineer and General Manager; Bureau Commander Fire Suppression and Rescue; Division Commander; Battalion Commander; Task Force Commander; and Company Commander.
A Task Force (TF) consists of a double-triple two-piece engine company and an aerial ladder company with 12 men in the high-value district near this fire. A Heavy Duty Task Force (HTF) has an additional triple and a total of 17 men. (Two of the HTF's on the fire had a 50' snorkel-triple as the two-piece wagon.)
Incoming alarms, dispatches, radio communications and time, accurate to the minute, are recorded on tape. Heavy radio traffic overrode the time for up to four minutes during this emergency; but the times given are reasonably accurate.
Dispatching is done by the Operations Control Division. This division does more than dispatch; most importantly, they maintain the posture of uncommitted forces during major fires. This is to provide the best possible coverage of the rest of the City and to provide short response times for additional help which may be needed at the major fire.
Three reports, not necessarily listed chronologically, given some idea of conditions before the alarm was turned in:
Three of the injured state; "I was awakened at 0500."
The 24-hour clock times shown below are from the dispatcher's tape recording:
TF 10 Commander could see the fire rolling out the lobby entrance, endangering the people hanging out the windows and preventing use of the adjacent fire escape. He ordered a 2 1/2" line with spray nozzle into the lobby and went to the north side of the building where the parking lot gave access. He saw fire move up from floor to floor at the windows off the north stairs. He returned to the apparatus radio to direct incoming companies and remembers hoping those people coming down didn't hit his men. Truck 10 made rescues on Grand with aerial and ground ladders.
The results at this point were:
Engine 10 in lobby with 2 1/2" near the elevator shaft with fire in three directions. They could knock it down in one direction, but that would reflash before they could darken another. Truck 10 continued to make rescues on Grand and on the north side.
HTF 9 was making rescues with aerial and ground ladders on the north. Engine 9 (the two-piece) took a 1 1/2" spray through the rear, north third floor window and worked their way down the hall toward the front as far as the north-south hall. At this point they were unable to knock down and hold both the fire coming up the north stairs and in the hall to the south. E209 (the triple) took a 1 1/2" spray into the second floor north stairway window but was unable to make much headway.
HTF 3 on the south (Pico Street) side was unable to get lines into the building. Every time they placed a ladder, people came down and the ladder had to be moved for someone else.
HTF 11 attacked over the roof of the abutting one-story commercial on the west. Rescues were made from upper windows and many injured were on the roof.
A girl jumped to her death from the fourth-floor north window nearest Grand. Some came down ropes contrived from sheets and blankets. One man tied his rope to his television. He landed in the lot and the television on him. At least 12 seriously injured were lying in the north parking lot.
In almost every case, those rescued over ladders had to be helped onto or carried down the ladder. Some rescues were complicated by shouts of "forget him; take me."
The wood stud and stucco walls of the light well collapsed. All of the building inside the hallways was rubble, resting on the first floor. The rubble was about level with the second-floor hall toward the Grand Avenue side, reached the third floor on the north and south sides of light well and was several feet deep in the center of the building. The southern end of the north section of the west wall leaned inward about 18 inches, and structural cracks were evident at the second and third-floor levels. The north part of this wall appeared to have a slight bow, either a bulge at the center or a lean inward at the top. The Pico Street wall appeared straight as the fire was controlled, but later appeared to lean inward slightly at the mid point. The other walls appeared to be stable, even though bricks in varying amounts had been loosened around window openings by heavy streams.
The rooms on the building's exterior perimeter outside the hallways were reasonably intact structurally. Some forty-floor ceilings over these rooms on the Grand Avenue side had collapsed and most of the fourth-floor ceiling plaster either fell or had the wood lathe burned away. Fire damage in the exterior rooms was less on successively lower floors, with some on the second south being almost untouched.
Very little fire entered the commercial occupancies in the south half of the first floor. Most of the merchandise was recovered, dry and usable. The lobby had been well involved, but the lobby desk could be identified, and the register and other records were recovered; wet, but legible. Except for the room in the northeast corner of the first floor, which was burned out, rooms on the north wall showed only smoke and heat damage -- the contents were not water soaked.
The structure emitted black smoke in volume until almost 1200 hours.
Eight task forces, consisting of eight two-piece engines, four triples, eight truck companies and manned by 20 company commanders and 100 other men were used in the attack on the building. A two-man salvage company, supplemented by some of the task-force personnel, covered merchandise in the hotel's first floor commercial occupancies and in the abutting commercial building on the west. A triple patrolled for brands. Six men manned "utilities" -- lights, heavy (tow-truck heavy rescue), service (food -- coffee) and command. These units were supervised by six battalion commanders, one division commander, each with an aide, and the Fire Suppression Bureau Commander. Thus, a total of 149 men were actively committed to the fire fighting In addition, seven Fire Department ambulances manned by 14 men handled the injured.
The building appeared to be structurally unstable.
It was almost certain that the bodies of fatalities were inside. From Fire Department pre-fire planning records and the hotel manager's memory, drawings showing rooms and halls were prepared. This was to pinpoint the locations where bodies were found to assist in the identification process by the Coroner.
Red Cross and Fire personnel used hotel and hospital records, tracked down and talked with survivors and used other means to determine the people in the building at the time of the fire and those who had escaped. This was complicated by the fact that many registered residents used aliases; some occupants were unregistered; and four persons listed by hospitals as injured were neither registered at the hotel nor known by occupants.
The Red Cross took full responsibility for finding substitute housing and providing other needed personal assistance.
During the afternoon of September 13, nine bodies were recovered by a search of the perimeter rooms. The tenth was seen at about the second floor level, above the lobby area but pinned in place by several feet of rubble.
On September 14 the building owner, the insurance adjuster, City Building Department representatives and the Fire Suppression Bureau Commander met at the site. (The Building Department has the authority to order removal of the building; and if the owner does not, through a long, legal process can contract for the demolition and charge the owner for costs.) The owner was given an order to immediately demolish; and after consultation with the adjuster, stated that he could start work in about two weeks. This frustrated the Fire Department's need to complete the extinguishment and search for victims. The Fire Department suggested that if they retained jurisdiction over the site and kept the streets closed, that the normally required, and expensive, construction barricades would not be needed. With this assurance, the owner let a contract by 1400 on September 14. The Fire Department arranged with other authorities for the removal of street lights, traffic lights, parking meters and mailboxes, which would have interfered, and arranged for the cut-off of all utilities. The contractor and the Fire Department agreed on a plan to cut a "V" in the Grand Avenue side of the building. This was to provide the most rapid, reasonably safe access to the rubble area which had not been searched.
Demolition work started early on September 15, with firemen assigned to watch the rubble pile and removed materials for bodies. By 1900 hours, three bodies (#10, 11, 12) had been recovered. Work continued through the night. Early the next morning, body 13 was located and by 1600 hours three more (#14, 15, 16) were removed. By nightfall the contractor's men were worn out so work stopped until morning. During the daylight hours of September 17, no additional bodies were found. Work again stopped overnight. By 0825 on September 18, the last two bodies, for a total of 18, were removed. (The nineteenth fatality was a jumper removed during fire fighting.)
During the demolition, firemen entered portions of the building considered safe and recovered salvageable personal belongings. These were returned to owners who appeared and could provide identity. Unclaimed personal belongings were placed in police custody.
By September 21 at 0700 almost all the building had been hauled away. The area was considered safe for sidewalk and street traffic and streets were re-opened. The Fire Department ended its control of the scene.
The occupants of the building were working or retired people of moderate means. Most were Mexican, some Italian, at least one Filipino, and the manager was Japanese.
Hotel records, the manager's memory, and conversations with survivors indicate that there were 117 residents or guests in the hotel at the time of the fire.
There were nineteen known fatalities; one who jumped from the fourth floor and 18 who died in the structure -- probably from asphyxia. Some of the bodies were so badly burned that cause of death could not be fixed. Thirteen of the victims were fourth-floor occupants. Of these, one jumped; five were found in their rooms; one was found in the adjoining room of the suite; one was found in the rear north hall some distance from his front room; five were found in the rubble. These were found at locations indicating four may have died in their rooms and one may have been in the hall, but this is pure conjecture. Two fatalities were third-floor occupants; one found in his room and one in the rubble below. Four fatalities were second-floor occupants. Two found in their rooms; one in the adjoining room; and one in the hall just outside the room.
There were 25 known treated injured, with injuries ranging from fractured back to compound fractures of both legs and both ankles to minor cuts and burns. Fifteen were still in the hospital three days after the fire.
Nine of the injured were from the fourth floor. One jumped, holding his mattress to land on in the parking lot. Five jumped to the first-floor roof and one hit on the edge and went to the ground. One came down the north fire escape and jumped to the ground. One was rescued by firemen.
Thirteen of the injured were from the third floor. Five jumped to the first-floor roof, three slid bedding or rope, one came down the fire escape, one jumped for the first-floor roof and missed; and it is not known how three escaped.
Four of the injured were from the second floor, two were rescued by firemen, one came down the fire escape and one jumped. Undoubtedly there were others injured, but none are believed serious.
While an accurate count is impossible, 60 to 80 people, some seriously injured, were removed by firemen from the hotel or the adjoining roof within 21 minutes after the first equipment arrived. The 25 injured listed above were transported to hospitals by fire personnel.
While police reports list the fatalities as burns, probably most were caused by asphyxia, as it appears most were trapped in their rooms. However, the condition of most of the bodies makes a positive statement impossible.
Roof in all cases is first-floor light well roof or adjoining one-story commercial roof.
A joint investigation of the fire at the Ponet Square Hotel, 1249 South Grand, which occurred on Sunday, September 13, 1970, at approximately 0532 hours (5:32 a.m.), has been conducted by the Los Angeles Fire Department Arson Section and the Los Angeles Police Department Central Detective Division.
This investigation reveals that the fire was incendiary in origin. Based on the results of the investigation, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office issued a complaint, and a warrant of arrest was obtained charging 1 count of Arson and 19 counts of Murder for Alejandro Castro Figueroa.
Figueroa was a resident of the hotel at the time of the fire. Alejandro Figueroa, 44 years of age, has been arrested on the "no bail" warrant, and will be arraigned on October 13, 1970 at Division 40. There will be no further information available at this time.
Honorable City Council
....with the Council action for September 26, 1970 the Department of Building and Safety and the Fire Department. joint.-story residential building on the ................bordered on the north ........the south by the Santa Monica Freeway, ....the Harbor Freeway and the east by the Los Angeles River.
The survey ....residential buildings three stories ....constructed prior to 1947. One hundred .......structures lacked stairwell ??enclosures, ?? had no fire alarm systems, 73 had trans... openings between , ?? had no wet or dry standpipes, ?? ... adequate basement sprinklers and ??? construction.
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