The Library That Burned: The Story of the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library Fire

The pyramid atop the Los Angeles Central Library, topped with a golden hand, entwined by the serpent of knowledge, holding aloft the torch of knowledge.
Image Credit: (cc) Jim Winstead via Flickr

(I delivered a slightly modified version of this essay as a speech to my Toastmasters Club on Wednesday, December 16th, 2009. I posted this transcript to my former website, lifeinoleg.com, the next day.)

What took seven-and-a-half hours to extinguish with the aid of three-hundred fire fighters, eight rescue ambulances, and three helicopters? I am talking, of course, about the greatest structural fire in Los Angeles history, the 1986 Central Library Fire.

It started innocently enough when a fire alarm was triggered at 10:52am on a bright Tuesday morning. Joyce Elliot who worked at one of the branches far away from the Central Library remembers getting a call on the morning of her return from a four-week vacation. “I felt as if I had been hit in the stomach,” she recalls, “I kept saying over and over in my mind, ‘Please, God, let everyone get out!” Over at the Central Library, employees and patrons were quickly shuffling out of the building muttering about those darned fire drills. To be sure, it was a well-known fact that the building, which was designed in 1926 by Bertram Goodhue, was a firetrap, and yet the staff had grown accustomed to the risk their workplace posed to the upwards of a million volumes housed there. It was not until firefighters rushed into the building and began breaking windows and hooking up hoses that everyone realized this was no drill.

Soon, billows of smoke were visible from the outside where staff stood dumbfounded. “…as the day wore on the reports grew ever more terrible to hear. The firefighters were challenged by molten steel, narrow and unknown corridors and stairways, and in great abundance was fire’s favorite fuel,” Roy Stone, then of the Cypress Park branch, reported afterwards. Indeed, by noon the fire was still spreading, so much so that firefighters had to be “…rotated every 15 to 20 minutes due to the heat and smoke they were experiencing…Whenever a fire attack team open[ed] a nozzle, they [were] driven back by super heated steam.”

The biggest problem was ventilation; since there was no way for the heat created by the fire deep inside the building to escape, the building was turning into a giant furnace. At two o’clock, temperatures inside parts of the building were estimated to be between 2000 and 2500 degrees Fahrenheit – that was when stacks began to collapse. As more and more water was poured into the building, a new issue arose: preservation of materials; water was rising inside the building, especially on the lower levels, so while the firefighters above were pumping in heavy streams, others were attempting to “de-water” the bottom floors.

At three o’clock, after five hours of burning, the fire was no longer spreading, but getting to its seat was proving impossible; the heat that had been retained by the walls and the layout of the building made it so that every time firefighters approached with water, they were flung back by deadly steam. But a new scheme was about to get underway because for the past half-hour, Heavy Utility 27 led by Chief Lucarelli had been preparing to jackhammer holes in the floors above the fire. As each hole was opened, “…large volumes of heat and smoke [were] released under pressure…blowers [were] used for cross ventilation to help keep smoke and heat away from jackhammer crews.” Slowly, with each new hole, the firefighters below made headway in fighting the blaze. At five-thirty, the fire was 90% contained. An hour later, the firefighters were victorious. Yet, things were far from over, there remained the mammoth task of rescuing the libraries’ collection; what wasn’t ravaged by flames was soaked by the unavoidable water that was almost knee-deep in some parts of the library.

That evening, when experts deemed the building safe to enter, firefighters took groups of staff members into the injured building with flashlights to ascertain the extent of the damage and plan the salvage operation. What they found was worse than expected; quick and decisive action would have to be taken in order to save the collection from disintegrating. Though every minute was crucial, experts spent a large part of the next day making sure the building was safe for what was to follow. Wednesday night, twenty four hours after the fire was put down, the call to action went out through word-of-mouth and media: “Please come…The library must be saved!”

Many today doubt the necessity of public libraries in our society, and this was probably also the case in 1986, and yet thousands of people heard the libraries’ call and came running. It became known as the hard-hat brigade and its mission was to retrieve the books from the library, pack and load them onto trucks to be taken to donated warehouse space where they would undergo a restoration process. Thousands of people, young and old, from all over California signed-in, were given hard hats, and boldly entered the building again and again emerging loaded down with piles of wet books.

For four days and four nights, there were lines of staff members, community groups, and other library lovers hauling books out of the library. Restaurants donated food, non-profits and other City Departments pitched tents and laid out beds for exhausted volunteers. The effort was herculean but the job was done and by Sunday, 70% of the libraries’ collection – everything that could be saved – was saved.

All that was left after the flurry of activity was a crippled building, floating ash, mold, knee-high debris, and Central Library staff like mice returning to their poor holes. Glen Creason, a librarian at Central library describes his experience a few weeks after the fire: “Now as I am climbing through empty stacks where the wisdom of ages once rested, I can hear the music of transistor radios keeping the workers company as they inventory the losses. Can they be as sad as I am? We all lost a lot in those damned flames and it still hurts, a heartache that won’t go away.” Soon, even the melancholy sound of radios in the stacks were silenced as staff were moved to the temporary – for the next several years – Central Library location or reassigned to branches.

While that ends the story of the Central Library Fire, Los Angeles could not stand still at the loss of its beloved library. It was Mayor Bradley and a cadre of community members along with the administration of the Los Angeles Public Library that organized a nationwide “Save the Books” campaign that ultimately resulted in the construction of a new Central Library – a beautiful building that combines Bertram Goodhue’s timeless design with an awesome expansion appropriately called the Bradley Wing. The new library opened in 1993, and remains as beautiful today as it was when it opened 16 years ago. While the fire was certainly a tragedy, from it rose a better place – for that we can be grateful.