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Grenfell Tower in London, a Tragedy Predicted by Hollywood

An interview with Fire Commissioner Peter Lucarelli, Technical Adviser for the Classic Disaster Movie "The Towering Inferno" (1974)

by Vanni Cappelli

Peter Lucarelli directs firemen on the set of The Towering Inferno (1974)

Peter Lucarelli on the recent tragedy in London: “Cost concerns must never outweigh safety issues in the construction of any building... If the Grenfell Tower had a properly engineered and operating sprinkler system, the aluminum cladding may still have allowed the fire to lap up the exterior of the building; however, most likely it would not have been able to penetrate the interior. And only one stairway for exiting was truly a design for disaster.”

Fire Commissioner Peter Lucarelli today

The Grenfell Tower fire in London, which has shocked the world by its intensity, high death toll, and revelations that cheap building materials played a major role in spreading the flames, has sparked a political crisis in Britain and a renewed international debate on skyscraper safety. Yet as an inquiry begins into the blaze in which over eighty people lost their lives, among them the tragic young Italian couple Marco Gottardi and Gloria Trevisan, there is one seasoned expert who will remind those who are grasping for answers that the issues at the heart of the tragedy have been known and publically articulated for many decades now.

“Cost concerns must never outweigh safety issues in the construction of any building, let alone one in which you have literally stacked people up to the sky,” says Fire Commissioner Peter Lucarelli, whose long and distinguished career with the Los Angeles Fire Department included serving as the technical adviser for the classic 1974 disaster movie The Towering Inferno. “Whatever the origin of the fire, and no matter how courageous and skilled the firemen are, built-in fire protection features will always be the decisive factor in saving lives.” “If the Grenfell Tower had a properly engineered and operating sprinkler system, the aluminum cladding may still have allowed the fire to lap up the exterior of the building; however, most likely it would not have been able to penetrate the interior. And only one stairway for exiting was truly a design for disaster.”

A native of Walla Walla in Washington state, where he now serves as fire commissioner in the town of Redmond, Lucarelli’s paternal family came from Casamassima in the province of Bari and his maternal ancestors from Costa in the province of Como, which leads him to joke hat he “unites the two ends of Italy.” He draws upon more than a half a century of experience and reflection when he makes his sharp and detailed observations on fire prevention and firefighting. After moving to Hollywood, California as a boy, meetings with firemen who spoke inspirationally about “a lifestyle of helping people” motivated him to join the LAFD in 1963 at age 25. Although he states that he witnessed no traumas as a young man that influenced his career choice, Lucarelli emphasizes that his baptism under fire came soon enough – and continued steadily over the years.

“The Watts Riots of August 1965, which saw hundreds of buildings destroyed by arsonists, were a terrible thing for a young fireman to experience, but they did not result in a heavy loss of life from the fires,” he  explains. “Much more traumatic was the Ponet Square Hotel fire in September 1970. Also caused by arson, it was a classic example of an old and decrepit structure that was built before the fire code then in force was adopted, and thus was exempt from it. As the hotel had no enclosed stairways or corridors with self-closing doors, the flames tore from one end of the four-story building to the other in no time. People were jumping and hitting the sidewalk all around us as we arrived, and a total of 19 died. Soon after the ‘Ponet Ordinance’ waspassed by the city, which required the appropriate stairways and doors and forced all buildings to comply, regardless of their age. Likewise, the First Interstate Tower fire in May 1988, in which four floors of a 62-story skyscraper without sprinklers were gutted, led to a further tightening of the code that required all high-rises to have sprinklers, no matter when they were built.”

Musing on this pattern of tragedy followed by laws to prevent similar tragedies, the commissioner admits that “To some extent, it has been ‘suffer and learn’ since the Triangle Factory fire of 1911. Yet, given the advanced state of the art of firefighting today, we really should be beyond that point in modern, developed countries.”

However historical circumstances do bring new challenges, and Lucarelli is keen to point out the particular issues of the present age of terror. “Since 9/11, there has been a certain backing-off from the traditional all-out attack by firefighters if there is any hint that the blaze is part of a terror incident,” he explains. “This is because terrorists have been known to have a time bomb in place with the specific intent to kill first responders. Such a risk forces firemen to assume a defensive posture, and fight from the outside. In this scenario, civilians have a definite role to play, for their own sake and ours. The average civilian does not think to themselves ’Is there a second device?’ and may linger to watch the drama that is unfolding. In suspected cases of terrorism, people have a dual duty to get as far away as they can from the danger while reporting the exact nature
of the event to the authorities, to the best of their knowledge”.

Yet there are firefighting maxims that transcend time, and for the commissioner one of  the most important was epitomized by an incident in which massive loss of life was averted. “In March of 1978 a Continental Airlines DC-10 was trying to take off from Los Angeles International Airport when several of its tires blew,” he recalls. “Although the captain was able to bring the plane to a halt, in the process the fuel tanks were ruptured and the craft ignited. Luckily, dozens of airport firemen were on the scene within 90 seconds, skillfully coordinating a rapid and orderly evacuation while extinguishing the fire within six minutes. Out of 200 people aboard, only two died. I can still see the sight of that severely charred airplane surrounded by the foam that put out the fire, and I remember thinking that it was  a miracle that many dozens didn’t die. In a fire, seconds really count.”

That truth is one of the many messages and lessons imparted by The Towering Inferno, Irwin Allen’s epic about how a catastrophic fire caused by corrupt and venal cost-cutting devastates the tallest building in the world in San Francisco on the night of its dedication, and Lucarelli recalls his role in the production with fondness and pride.

Steve McQueen (left) and Peter Lucarelli

“Steve McQueen, who played the heroic battalion chief Michael O’Halloran, took his role and the overall quality of the film very seriously,” the commissioner explains. “He insisted that the studio provide a technical adviser, both for reasons of safety and to insure an accurate depiction
of firefighting. I knew Bruce
Corwin, the son of the co-producer of Allen’s previous disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure, and he recommended me for the job, because of his confidence in my expertise and the fact that I myself was a battalion chief at the time. My overall goals were to make the picture as realistic as possible, while sending a strong message about the particular problems of high-rises and the challenges of firefighting in general – what firemen are up against, the courage that they show“McQueen and I became very close during the filming, not least because he shared my goals,” Lucarelli continues. “At one point, he took me aside and said, ‘I want you to promise me that  when the film is done, no one is going to laugh at firemen’ – an incredible commitment to authenticity by an actor. I think that promise was kept, but there were some compromises
concerning realism. For instance, the movie does not show nearly the actual amount of smoke that would be generated by so intense and large a fire, for the simple reason that the action  would have been hard to follow. As Irwin explained to me, ‘If people can’t see the stars’ faces,
they won’t buy tickets, and they come to the cinema for the action, and to see the stars.’ But apart from that, I felt that the realism angle was a success, and it was exciting to be a part of it, for everyone involved. By an incredible coincidence, a serious fire broke out at a Goldwyn Studios soundstage before we even started filming, so I took Steve along to get some real  on-the-job-training, and he passed his probation with flying colors.”

The commissioner also forged a lasting friendship with noted cinematographer Fred Koenecamp, who won an Oscar Award for his work on the film, and who passed away in May at age 94. “He was a consummate professional who deserves much of the credit for the success of the picture,” he affirms. “His technical and interpersonal skills were consistently at the very highest level.” Lucarelli also fondly recalls working with actress Susan Flannery, who is esteemed among Italian viewers for her longtime role on the television serial The Bold and the Beautiful. In The Towering Inferno, she and Robert Wagner play a tragic young couple who lose their lives because of the irresponsibility and greed of the skyscraper’s builders, and her performance earned her a Golden Globe Award.  The commissioner praises Flannery’s professionalism in an emotionally and physically demanding part. “She is as nice as she is beautiful, and her cooperation and patience were incredible,” he recalls. “We had to run all the actors and actresses through the scenes without smoke or fire before we did the actual shooting, and Susan, who had a very difficult role involving close proximity to the flames, was a real trouper, and never complained about the multiple rehearsals and takes. She was just totally dedicated to getting the drama and the message of the scene right”

Lucarelli’s wife Millie, Susan Flannery, and Lucarelli on the set.

Although The Towering Inferno was criticized by some at the time of its release for its alleged sensationalism, recent history from 9/11 to the Grenfell Tower fire has traumatically revealed that what actually takes place when a very tall building catches on fire is far more  horrific than anything that appears onscreen in the movie. And Commissioner Lucarelli will remind people that this is something to ponder, not least because these messages have already been conveyed, and these lessons were supposed to have already been learned – on film and  in real life – a long time ago.

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