Sasha Poparic was in his bedroom preparing to go to work on a Friday morning last October when he glanced out his window and saw smoke. At first, he didn’t think much of it.
"I thought, maybe something is burning on the street, like a trash container," said Poparic. "Since no alarm was ringing, why should I leave the building?"
But a few minutes later, he heard the building’s fire alarm. He realized his West Los Angeles high-rise apartment building was on fire.
Poparic opened his front door. The hallways on the 24th floor where he lived were filling with thick black smoke. Suddenly, he thought he might die.
"I thought, you know what, this is it," said Poparic, 42. "I made peace with that."
But Poparic, who runs a Beverly Hills nightclub, gathered his thoughts. He covered his mouth with a wet cloth, and scrambled to the stairwell. He was searching for his neighbor’s 2-year-old, and her 69-year-old grandfather. The neighbor had called from outside asking him to check on them.
Two floors down, Poparic found them, passed out on the stairs.
"I thought they were dead," he said. "She didn’t move at all. He was still holding her."
Poparic performed CPR on the little girl. He saved her and her grandfather. His neighbors in the Barrington Plaza apartments called him a hero. But Poparic was angry.
"I decided to move out immediately," he said
Poparic no longer wanted to live in Barrington Plaza, a 712-unit complex of high-rise apartments that don’t have fire sprinklers. He doesn’t understand why they don’t.
"Its common sense," Poparic said.
In fact, Barrington Plaza is one of 60 older high-rise residential buildings in L.A. that don’t have sprinklers – and aren’t required to. They are home to tens of thousands of people.
How the debate over high rise fire sprinklers was extinguished in LA
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.
Things changed after the dramatic 1988 nighttime fire in downtown Los Angeles at the First Interstate Bank, which did not have sprinklers. It lit up the downtown skyline for more than three hours; the blaze killed one person and injured forty.
The First Interstate fire prompted the City Council to require older commercial high rises to install sprinklers. The council considered extending the retrofit mandate to older residential buildings, but condominium owners successfully argued that it would cost too much.
That’s never made sense to L.A. City Fire Department Inspector Alex Molina.
"A sprinkler may not put the fire out," Molina said. "But it’ll keep it in check, keep it small, keep it from spreading."
That’s crucial in a high rise, where flames can spread quickly and block escape routes.
Molina inspects high-rises. He oversees dozens of buildings without sprinklers in his West L.A. district, including Barrington Plaza. He says last October’s fire, which nearly cost two lives, injured three firefighters, killed a dog, and damaged 51 units, could have been stopped much earlier.
"The sprinklers would have held the fire to one room, and damage would have been a lot less," said Molina.
Glenn Rosten, former vice president of the Greater L.A. Condominium Association, is unmoved by that argument. He led the fight against the sprinkler mandate after the 1988 First Interstate fire, collecting thousands of signatures from residents of high-rise buildings.
Rosten argued that it doesn’t make sense to install sprinklers. "The odds of dying in a high rise residential fire are 16 million to one against," he asserted.
He couldn't say where he found those odds.
Nationally, from 2007 to 2011, there were an average of 15,400 high-rise fires each year, according to the US Fire Administration. Over that five-year period ending in 2011, these fires killed 46 people annually, injured 530 civilians each year, and caused $219 million in property damage per year.
Rosten said installing sprinklers in old buildings would likely involve removing asbestos, and he cited a study that said it could cost upwards of $50,000 a unit.
Fire officials – including State Fire Marshall Tonya Hoover – say a retrofit could be done for much less than that, especially if the sprinkler pipes were left exposed. "They are an affordable life safety provision," she said.
Whatever the cost, sprinklers just aren’t worth it, said Rosten, who lives in the Century Towers in Century City – on the 17th floor – with no sprinklers.
"If someone offered to put them in free, I would be against it," he said, adding that he believes water from sprinklers would likely cause more damage than flames from a fire.
It’s worth noting that high rise buildings without sprinkler systems must have fire extinguishers located inside each unit, and most have smoke alarm systems. (A group of Barrington Plaza residents claims the existing alarm system failed to work properly during the October fire, and has filed a negligence lawsuit against corporate owner Douglas Emmett.)
Other major cities have different policies when it comes to fire sprinklers. In 1993, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that required all high rises - including older residential buildings - to install sprinklers by 2006. Chicago does not require sprinklers in high rises built before 1975.
The debate that once raged at L.A. City Hall over requiring fire sprinklers is extinguished, for now. The issue just isn’t on the radar.
"I really don’t know what the previous requirements for those older buildings were," Councilman Paul Krekorian said.
"I’m not sure its something I focused on, but it is a worrisome thought," said Councilman Paul Koretz.
Koretz compared installing fire sprinklers in old high rises to retrofitting old concrete structures for earthquakes. "We’ll regret it if we have a major earthquake and those buildings go down," Koretz said. "The same thing with the sprinklers."
That doesn’t mean Koretz – or Krekorian - is rushing to write a new ordinance requiring fire sprinklers in old high-rise apartment buildings.
If history is any guide, it will take another major high-rise fire to prompt something like that.
So while the sprinkler issue takes a back seat at City Hall, the 2-year-old in the Barrington Plaza fire slowly recovers - she spent two weeks in intensive care receiving treatment for second degree burns and severe smoke inhalation, according to her family's attorney.
"She was so small," Poparic said. "I really thought she was gone."
Poparic feels a special bond to the little girl he saved – he keeps in close contact with her family. He said she faces a long recovery – physical and emotional.
"Whenever she sees her grandfather, she starts crying because she thinks he took her to the fire," he said. "She’s traumatized."
Data source: L.A. Bureau of Fire prevention and Public Safety
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This story was updated on Feb. 12, 2014 to reflect that residential high rises built before 1943 are required to have sprinklers.