19 January 2012 | virek213
Reliving The First Interstate Bank Fire
The fear of being trapped in a high-rise building fire is one that became a cinematic fear to be reckoned with in 1974 when producer Irwin Allen's terrifying disaster epic THE TOWERING INFERNO was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. One such TOWERING INFERNO-type event occurred in Los Angeles on May 4, 1988, when a fire of unknown origin (but believed to have been electrical in nature) sparked on the 12th floor of the First Interstate Bank Tower in the city's downtown section that evening. It was the worst high-rise blaze in the city's history, made so by the fact that the sprinkler system that would have doused the fire was not yet fully operational. Five floors of the building (floors 12-16) were gutted, causing $50 million dollars in damage. Forty people were injured in the incident, and a maintenance worker in the building was killed when the elevator the worker was riding in accidentally opened onto the 12th floor where the fire was, burning him instantly. This is the story told in the made-for-TV film FIRE: TRAPPED ON THE 37TH FLOOR, which aired on ABC-TV on February 18, 1991.
Lisa Hartman and Peter Scolari portray two of the survivors of the First Interstate fire who, on that evening, found themselves cut off from help on the 37th floor of the 62-story building when the fire broke out. During a test of the sprinkler system, which is only 90% finished, the water is shut off; and on the 12th floor of the building, the fire erupts. But because it is not only the sprinkler system that isn't functioning but also the smoke alarms, the building's security staff is unable to pinpoint the exact location of the fire until it has already spread beyond their control and tragically killed one of the maintenance workers. By the time the Los Angeles Fire Department, under the command of deputy chief Donald Sterling (Lee Majors) arrives, everyone is out of the building except for Hartman and Scolari, who cannot go down any of the stairwells to safety because of the smoke and the threat that the fire may reach their floor before the fire department can get a handle on it.
Like a great many disaster films based on real-life incidents, FIRE: TRAPPED ON THE 37TH FLOOR does tend to emphasize certain aspects of the story for dramatic license, though not for sensationalistic scenes of death by fire. In a precursor to what happened with New York City and Port Authority fire departments on 9/11, but with only one death attributable to it, communications problems, combined with the perceived false alarms of the smoke detectors and the uninstalled sprinklers, kept the fire burning for far longer than it should have; and many fire personnel who had to fight the fire inside the five floors were hindered in their communications on the ground by the noise and the turbulence generated by the rotor wash of the helicopters doing surveillance of the building. In general, however, given that this was the worst high-rise fire in the city's history, the professionalism of the L.A. Fire Department kept it from being a holocaust, a fact that is acknowledged by this film, as THE TOWERING INFERNO had emphasized in its fictional version of the ultimate high-rise horror story.
Even though Jeffrey Bloom's screenplay and Robert Day's direction occasionally tend to veer in the somewhat melodramatic direction of so many disaster movies, both big screen and small screen alike, FIRE: TRAPPED ON THE 37TH FLOOR still manages to boast good performances from TV veterans Scolari, Hartman, and Majors; and the special effects work of Josh Haikan, and the score by Gil Melle (who had worked on director Robert Wise's 1971 sci-fi classic THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN) enhance the mood of the film even more. Like the much more elaborate TV disaster film THE BIG ONE: THE GREAT LOS ANGELES EARTHQUAKE, which aired on NBC only three and a half months before, FIRE: TRAPPED ON THE 37TH FLOOR may not be a masterpiece of either the TV film arena or the disaster film genre, but it is effective enough, especially as it provides a real-enough re-creation of a nightmarish event in L.A. history, one many fear will, even with stricter fire codes, be replicated with far more calamitous results in the future.