'I thought I was going to burn in a building': LA apartment fire raises concerns over ASU student safety

One ASU student was present during the fire

When Hannah Foote woke up in Los Angeles to the sound of sirens on Wednesday morning, she didn’t think much of it — she knew they were coming from emergency personnel rushing to the scene of a fire at a nearby Wells Fargo bank. 

“When I kept hearing it throughout the day, I would get up for a second and then just go back to bed, kind of annoyed that it was still going on,” Foote said. 

But what Foote wasn’t prepared for, she said, was that another fire would soon start in her own building, and  she wouldn’t know about it until it was nearly too late. 

Foote, a sophomore majoring in journalism working for Cronkite News in Los Angeles as a health reporter, is a former resident of Barrington Plaza, a 25-story high rise that caught on fire Wednesday morning, leaving 13 people injured. 

Four Cronkite News reporters and one film student spending the semester in LA were housed in the complex, but Foote and her roommate were the only ones living in the building that caught fire, Foote said. She was the only one home at the time.

The Los Angeles Fire Department sent out an alert about the fire at 8:37 a.m. But Foote said it could have been going on for 20 or 30 minutes by the time she noticed, since nothing in particular alerted her about the blaze growing six floors below her — no sprinkler system, no alarm. 

“I looked out my window in my room, and everyone was evacuated,” Foote said. “Hundreds of people were looking at me, and the second they saw my face, they were screaming at me to get down, and I didn’t know what was happening. I had no way of knowing this was happening.”

Foote said she was one of the last people to evacuate the building — another one later attempted to jump out of the building from the sixth floor — and even as she did, she wasn’t sure what she was running from. 

“I didn’t know if there was a shooter, I didn’t know if it was a fire. I knew nothing,” she said. 

She escaped the building safely, despite not having her contact lenses in or even her shoes on. Still, it scares her to think about what could have happened. 

“I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t get out of bed,” Foote said. “If those people weren’t screaming at me — it’s honestly horrifying. I’ve tried to go to bed and I can’t sleep over it. I keep seeing people screaming at me to get down.” 

Barrington Plaza, built in 1961, did not have fire sprinklers installed, despite having previously caught on fire in 2013, leaving eight injured. The complex is one of 55 residential high-rises in LA that is not equipped with sprinklers, public information officer Erik Scott said at a Wednesday press conference, according to USA Today. 

“That’s because they were built prior to 1974, and they’re not currently required to be equipped with sprinklers,” Scott told reporters at the conference. 

Foote said that even though the fire started below her 12th-floor apartment, it spread quickly, damaging surrounding floors and causing smoke damage to higher ones. 

“It was just the most traumatic experience I’ve ever had before,” she said. 

Foote and her roommate, Valerie Gonzales, both said that ASU was quick to respond to the news, offering them and the other students hotel rooms, new Sun Cards, and transportation. 

"Student Advocacy is working to support any of their needs," said ASU media relations officer Katie Paquet via email. 

Still, the students and other residents haven't been allowed back in the building since. Foote and Gonzales' first task after the fire was to buy new clothes before heading to Gonzales' family's home nearby. 

"We have none of our stuff," said Gonzales, a senior majoring in sports journalism. "No laptops, any of that stuff to do school or anything, so it's kind of hard."

"I get the firefighters, I respect them and they're doing everything they can, thank God for them, but they were only able to get some medication out, when we need our laptops and school supplies and stuff," she added.

Both students also said that while ASU responded quickly, the complex itself and Zuma Housing, the company that ASU partnered with to provide housing to students, did not. 

"When you're working at an apartment complex, your number one priority is your residents, and I felt like they didn't really do their job in a way," Gonzales said. "The fire was already out by the time they reached out to us."

Foote said that the apartment complex houses a mix of college students and families, and that more people could have been hurt by the lack of a sprinkler or alarm system to notify residents of the emergency — according to Foote, the complex only has alarm systems on certain floors.

"There are a lot of things that bother me about the process," Foote said. "I think if the building is on fire, you should know it's your building on fire. There's a real problem with the system Barrington Plaza is using. I've heard a lot of people talking about suing."

One tenant has already filed a lawsuit in response to the fire, The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday. That tenant charged that the company that owns the building, Douglas Emmett Inc., was negligent in not installing sprinklers or making other fire safety improvements.

"For years, tenants of Barrington Plaza Apartments have pleaded, warned and fought with Douglas Emmett ... about a seemingly straightforward issue: Barrington Plaza is unacceptably, illegally and fatally unsafe from fires,” the lawsuit said, according to the Times.

Barrington Plaza did not respond to a request for comment.

The cause of the fire has not been officially determined, but the Los Angeles Fire Department was investigating the possibility of arson, according to local reports from the area.

Foote and Gonzales both plan to finish the semester in LA, but they hope to do it elsewhere. Residents from floors 10 and above were permitted to enter the building to collect their belongings on Thursday, but Foote said the damage has been done — the smell of smoke has permeated the entire space. 

Foote and Gonzales plan to speak with ASU about alternative options soon.

"It looks like a haunted house, the whole thing was just ashen black," Foote said. "We're really hoping to get out of there because I don't feel safe, and I know Val (Gonzales) doesn't feel safe, and we feel like we're in a building that doesn't care about our safety at all." 

Editor's Note: Hannah Foote previously worked as a reporter for The  State Press but did not contribute to the reporting or editing of this story.


Reach the reporter at Vandana.Ravikumar@asu.edu and follow @vandana_rav on Twitter. 

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