Staples Center Investigation Followup | NBC Southern California

Staples Center Investigation Followup

Transcript Of A Report Broadcast May 17

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    LOS ANGELES -- ANCHOR INTRODUCTION: Now to a Channel 4 News investigation -- concerns about a flaw in the fire safety system at Staples Center. Paul now has the very latest in our eight-month long investigation.

    PAUL MOYER: Last December, we aired the first installment in an ongoing investigation of the fire protections at the famed Staples arena in downtown LA. City documents we'd uncovered raised serious questions about whether the all-important smoke control system had been successfully tested when Staples got its final safety certification from the city in early 2000.

    Staples Center

    [LA] Staples Center
    An investigation followup of the fire protections at the Staples arena in downtown LA.
    (Published Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008)

    Since that broadcast, new sources have come forward with new disclosures.

    Department of Building and Safety Statement | Firecom Inc. Statement | Statement From LA City Fire Marshal Jimmy Hill

    PAUL MOYER: On June 10, 2006, this Fire Station in downtown Los Angeles responded to an alarm at the Staples arena. According to Fire Department records, a small fire had erupted in the McDonald's stand on the third floor, upper concourse. By the time the firefighters arrived, the fire was out. But it was reminder of how important Staples' fire protections are.

    TIM LEIWEKE: We never had any issues in this building to put anyone in harm's way.

    PAUL MOYER: Tim Leiweke is president of the Staples Center. In an interview for our original Staples report last December, he stated repeatedly that when city officials granted the arena its Certificate of Occupancy in February 2000, they were effectively verifying that all fire protections there had been properly tested and proven effective.

    TIM LEIWEKE: Building and Safety would not have signed the certificate of occupancy unless our systems were in compliance.

    PAUL MOYER: LA Fire and Building officials issued written statements supporting Leiweke's position. But soon after our broadcast we got a dissenting call from this interested viewer.

    BOB FLORES: At the time that we did the inspections, there was a significant safety issue.

    PAUL MOYER: Bob Flores is an internationally known fire-door expert who worked for a testing company hired by a Staples' sub-contractor during construction. His job: to make sure the fire doors were installed according to national and local fire safety codes. He says he informed city fire officials just before the Certificate of Occupancy was issued that many of the fire doors were not properly installed.

    BOB FLORES: Either they were missing particular pieces of hardware or they had the wrong hardware on.

    PAUL MOYER: These documents prepared at the time by his employer, the testing company Warnock-Hersey, show the problems he'd detected in the fire doors.

    BOB FLORES: Many of them had margin issues, meaning the gap between the edge of the door and the edge of the frame was in excess of what's permitted by the standard. They were so far offset from each other that the doors wouldn't close and latch.

    PAUL MOYER, TO FLORES: So what effect would these faulty fire doors have in the event of a fire here at Staples?

    BOB FLORES: Well, if they don't close and latch, I'm not sure you would be able to get out safely because of the movement of smoke through the building or possibly even fire through the building.

    PAUL MOYER: So serious were these allegations, we asked Flores to return to Staples to re-examine the fire doors. Three times in as many months he visited the arena -- twice with cameras, which he took in through Staples' security. He also prepared sketches of what he saw, which included fire doors on the main and upper levels.

    BOB FLORES: What I saw there was the same conditions with margins between the pairs of doors, doors that didn't align properly, and doors that wouldn't latch. You could literally see right between the pairs of doors. For smoke control they wouldn't work at all.

    PAUL MOYER: This fire door we photographed for our first broadcast at Staple's invitation. Though Flores wasn't on hand to view it, he says the video shows imperfections.

    BOB FLORES (POINTING TO VIDEO OF DOOR): We can clearly see the margin is large. Here, here and here. You can see it clearly didn't latch. The top is still offset away from the top of the other door.

    PAUL MOYER: Flores says the fire-door problems he observed would make it impossible to fully test and verify the effectiveness of Staples' smoke control system -- that collection of fire doors, dampers, ducts, fans, and pressurized stairwells designed to contain and expel smoke and save occupants from suffocating in the event of fire.

    PAUL MOYER, SPEAKING TO BOB FLORES: You could not do a full acceptance test of the smoke evacuation system with those doors in the condition you found them?

    BOB FLORES: No, you could not.

    PAUL MOYER: You could not?

    BOB FLORES: No.

    PAUL MOYER: To check Flores’s findings and conclusions, we consulted experts like Les Townzen, former chief deputy fire marshal for the state of Washington, now a private fire-safety consultant and fire-codes expert who has worked all over the country, including southern California.

    PAUL MOYER, SPEAKING TO TOWNZEN: How important are fire doors to the smoke evacuation system?

    LES TOWNZEN: Fire doors are an integral part. When a smoke control system starts to activate certain doors have to close to compartmentalize the building and the area to keep the fire and smoke from spreading into uninvolved areas.

    PAUL MOYER: He agrees that given the fire door problems Flores observed, Staples' smoke control system couldn’t have passed the acceptance test required for a Certificate of Occupancy.

    PAUL MOYER, SPEAKING TO TOWNZEN: All the elements, the components of that system have to pass?

    LES TOWNZEN: Yes.

    PAUL MOYER: They're all dependent on each other?

    LES TOWNZEN: Correct. It's all inter-tied -- many components inter-tied to one single system.

    PAUL MOYER: Townzen says if the smoke control system including the fire doors had passed an acceptance test, the safety code requires that a final progress report be prepared by independent inspectors after installation. In our interview with Tim Leiweke we asked him if he knew of such a report. He referred us to the Fire Department and to Fire Inspector Neal Reitzell who'd worked at Staples.

    PAUL MOYER, TO TIM LEIWEKE: Where's his report?

    TIM LEIWEKE: Well, you're going to have to ask them that. I don't… I…I…

    PAUL MOYER: There is no report.

    PAUL MOYER: Leweike has declined to be re-interviewed for this broadcast. Instead he has had Staples lawyers shower us with letters, attacking the reliability of our producer, our sources, our consultants, even Inspector Reitzell.

    In one letter the lawyers claim that their own hired fire-safety expert, an engineer named Mike Dillon, has "inspected a significant number of fire doors and frames" at Staples and found them "fully functional."

    They say Dillon "can find no basis for characterizing the arena as unsafe."

    But, throughout all this, the lawyers have refused to let us interview Mike Dillon.

    They also sent us this binder, titled Smoke Control Special Inspection Report, which they say documents a complete and successful acceptance test done on Staples' smoke control system, including its fire doors, in late 1999. They quoted Dillon as saying, "Nothing in those documents leads me to conclude that Staples Center is currently unsafe."

    We asked Townzen and other experts to examine the binder. They all reached the same conclusion -- that this is a snapshot of incomplete tests done on an incomplete smoke control system, only partially compliant with the codes, many months before the Certificate of Occupancy.

    LES TOWNZEN: There was no mention of any of the doors operationally. If the doors operated properly, there was never any mention or report that all the devices were tested.

    PAUL MOYER: In addition, we've uncovered Fire Department documents that show the alarm system and fire control panel for the smoke control system had not been installed at the time this report was prepared.

    PAUL MOYER, SPEAKING TO TOWNZE: If you have the fire control panel that's only partially operational, not fully, can you conduct a full acceptance test of the smoke evacuation system?

    LES TOWNZEN: No.

    PAUL MOYER: Moreover, according to this Fire Department log, over the next five months right up to the Certificate of Occupancy, Fire and Building officials continued to investigate whether the smoke control system actually worked.

    TIM LEWEIKE: That entire time they were testing every day.

    PAUL MOYER: The day before the Certificate of Occupancy, Fire Inspector Reitzell, issued his own final test report on the smoke control system and indicated by an empty check-off box that he had not given it a passing grade. Instead he referred readers to his log notes in which he wrote: "I spoke with Bob Flores… and he said most of the rated fire doors in the facility have been altered or improperly repaired and installed and that he would not certify them as they are now."

    PAUL MOYER, SPEAKING TO FLORES: You expressed that opinion?

    BOB FLORES: Yes, absolutely, in writing.

    PAUL MOYER: You said you would not certify these fire doors?

    BOB FLORES: Absolutely.

    PAUL MOYER: In writing?

    BOB FLORES: In writing.

    PAUL MOYER: Meanwhile, according to this permit, Building officials ran final tests on components of the smoke control system and gave them only "partial approval." Even so, the following day -- Feb. 16, 2000 -- the city signed off on Staples' Certificate of Occupancy, verifying that all fire-life-safety systems were proven effective. We asked the former chief deputy fire marshal for the state of Washington...

    PAUL MOYER, SPEAKING TO TOWNZEN: How could that happen?

    LES TOWNZEN: It can happen if the city officials sign off on the C of O when they shouldn't have. That's how it can happen. Shouldn't happen that way. No way if would happen here if I was involved. I would never sign off on smoke control system or recommend to a building official to sign off on the CO unless all the life safety systems were up and running and it passed a hundred percent of the certification and acceptance testing.

    PAUL MOYER: Townzen isn't the only cautionary voice. Jake Pauls, a renowned expert on fire-safety evaluations and evacuation procedures, says he finds the evidence we collected on Staples troubling.

    There are various reasons for this, one being that doors are ill-fitting or don't work the way they're supposed to, and hence the smoke control would not work as well as it's supposed to. And, secondly, there appears not have been adequate testing or evaluation of the smoke control system.

    Tim Leiweke admitted in his original interview that he'd been eager in 1999 to get the arena up and running but he said neither he nor the city shortchanged any of the required fire-safety tests for Staples.

    TIM LEWEIKE: No favors were asked for and we went through every standard test that any other building has to go through.

    PAUL MOYER: But this report, prepared by Inspector Reitzell in late February 2000, states: "The inspection schedule established by the Department of Building and Safety and the Arena Contractors was not practical… There was not enough time allowed for re-testing deficiencies to meet the proposed Certificate of Occupancy date…"

    Even now, seven years later, Building and Safety's computerized database shows that many fire-safety permits for Staples, including the one for smoke control components, still have only "partial approval" as their final inspection entries. The Department says it’s behind in its data-entry.

    BOB FLORES (POINTING TO DOORS ON TV MONITORS): It is clear that this door is not latched. You can see the offset from each other's face. We can see the light coming right there through the bottom as well. The margin is very large here.

    PAUL MOYER: In the last of his recent trips to Staples, Bob Flores was accompanied by wheelchair-bound Richard Skaff, a former building inspector who has helped the Mayor of San Francisco develop building standards to assist the disabled.

    RICHARD SKAFF TO FLORES: Would these doors protect me, or a person with another type of disability or the general public?

    BOB FLORES: I couldn't tell you that this door would help keep you safe from migration of smoke or fire. So, to say they would protect you, I wouldn't go anywhere near that.

    PAUL MOYER: Bob Flores tells us he filed a report with the city back in 2000 explaining his concerns about the fire doors. We filed a public records request asking the Department of Building and Safety for a copy of his report. They referred us to the Fire Department. We scoured Fire Department files for it and found no trace.

    Building and Safety told us the labels placed on fire doors by the manufacturer are proof the components are certified as code-compliant. Flores says that under code requirements, once a fire door is fully installed -- if any part of it is damaged or installed improperly -- it must be re-certified by an independent inspector like the testing agency he worked for at Staples in 1999-2000.

    In their many letters to us, Staples lawyers emphasized that the smoke control tests chronicled in the binder they sent us -- prepared in late 1999 -- represent the complete successful acceptance testing necessary for a Certificate of Occupancy. They did not explain why the city continued testing the smoke control system for the next five months.

    In one letter, Staples' lawyers did acknowledge that Fire Inspector Neal Reitzell had conducted smoke control tests at Staples in early 2000, but they also claimed that "Mr. Reitzell wasn't responsible for the smoke control aspects of the project." The Fire Department declined to let us interview Reitzell or any other officer.

    Staples' lawyers also noted that Reitzell wrote the word "completed" on handwritten notes about the smoke control tests he ran. They claim this means the smoke control system was fully and successfully tested. Our experts take a different view.

    LES TOWNZEN: You can fully test anything but whether it passes or not is another story.

    PAUL MOYER: Recently, Staples' fire-safety expert Mike Dillon contacted Bob Flores and talked to him about the fire doors. In a follow-up letter Staple’s lawyers state "...we have reason to believe that Mr. Flores never advised the network [KNBC] that Staples' fire doors present a hazard -- either by virtue of their design, installation or current condition." Bob Flores tells us this is incorrect and he sticks by the statements he made to us on camera.

    ANCHOR TAG: For more on this investigation, including earlier statements by building and fire officials vouching for the safety of the area, check our Web site KNBC.com.