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High-rise fire kills 6 in Chicago

CHICAGO -- A fire in a high-rise county administration building yesterday killed six people and trapped workers in smoke-filled stairways and hallways, officials said.

The dead were among 13 victims overcome by smoke who were not found until after the fire was brought under control and firefighters were conducting a floor-by-floor search of the 35-story building. Some of those trapped had called 911 on their cellular phones.

Fire Commissioner James Joyce said it is not unusual to find more people in the later stages of a fire in a building that can hold as many as 2,500 people during business hours.

"Searching for all those people [and] at the same time fighting the fire is more complicated than it looks from the outside," Joyce said.

Joyce said that the people that died appeared to be from one stairwell by the 22d floor, 10 stories above where the fire started.

He said a comprehensive search of the building was completed about five hours after the fire was first reported. He said he did not know how the fire started in the building, which has an alarm system but no sprinklers.

Joyce said that every corner of the building had been searched and that he was confident all of the victims had been located.

Authorities said 10 people were being treated at hospitals, and some were in serious or critical condition.

Flames and dense gray clouds of smoke billowed out of the windows shortly after the fire broke out around 5 p.m. The smoke was so thick that it forced some people to retreat inside from the stairwells.

Joyce said most of the injured were found in the stairways and hallways from the 16th to the 22d floors of the building. Workers on the 12th floor, where the fire broke out, said they first saw smoke coming from a storage room.

The cause of the fire was not known but there was no reason to suspect anything suspicious, Joyce said.

Marienne Branch, who works in the public defender's office on the 17th floor, made her way down a smoky stairwell with colleagues.

"I was scared for my life. I still am," Branch said.

Firefighters escorted others down stairways and evacuated a day-care center without incident, fire officials said.

In addition to the public defender's office, the building houses county prosecutors, the secretary of state's office, and other local and state government agencies.

Homebound commuters in Chicago's business district looked up to see flames and smoke pouring from the 12th-story windows. The rush-hour fire snarled traffic in the city's Loop business district and forced subway commuters to bypass underground tunnels.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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