Inspectors find ammo on 7th floor, in basement

ON THE SEVENTH floor of City Hall, near where office workers conduct city business and in a room without fire sprinklers or smoke alarms, the Police Department has been amassing gun ammunition for decades in violation of the fire code.

The Fire Department knew nothing of the stockpile - nor had it been told about another ammunition storage area in the basement - until a fire inspector decided to survey the 105-year-old building for fire hazards last summer.

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Padlock secures door in the basement of City Hall where some of the seized ammunition is stored, reachable only via key-operated freight elevator.

The inspector stumbled upon the cache not long after a small but fierce blaze ignited in a trash pile under a City Hall stairwell in May.

He was stunned by what he found.

A stockpile of gun ammunition seized by cops as crime evidence was stored in City Hall, where more than 1,000 city employees work.

Until that inspection, the Fire Department was unaware that City Hall had amassed ammunition that could, if a fire broke out, set off dozens of small explosions and give the blaze a deadly punch.

"I don't think you would walk into a room and see a lot of ammo and not say, 'Oh, wow!' " Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said. "It was a 'Wow, I-didn't-know-it-was-there' reaction."

In the cavernous basement of City Hall - billed as the nation's "largest municipal building" with nearly 700 rooms - fire inspectors stumbled upon an arsenal of ammunition in a storage room, which is unguarded but has a burglar alarm and sprinkler system. The door is padlocked.

Fire inspectors were more concerned to discover more than 800 pounds of small-arms ammunition, mostly bullets and magazine rounds, in Room 715 - on the same floor as administrative offices, Ayers said.

Most of the ammunition was tucked inside manila envelopes taped to thousands of guns in the "gun room," managed by the Police Department's Evidence Custodian Unit. The weapons and ammunition had been seized by cops from crime scenes and could be used as evidence in court.

But Room 715 was in violation of the city fire code. It has no sprinkler system or smoke alarm. Any building with ammo storage must have sprinklers throughout, Ayers said.

"If there is a fire near any ammunition, you have a problem," Ayers said.

The heat from a fire in Room 715 would unleash a series of mini-explosions. Hundreds of red-hot projectiles would "pop" as the heat split open ammunition shell-casings, according to fire-science experts.

"You do get a low-order explosion as each one of these things pops," said Richard Custer, a fire-safety expert at Arup, a global design firm. "The fire could get pretty big."

For firefighters, it would be like battling a blaze in a war zone. If firefighters had to retreat to let the ammo "cook off," the blaze could gain ground, jeopardizing the historic building and its occupants, fire experts said.

"You certainly have a potentially dangerous firefighting situation in there and for any of the people in the area," Custer said. "I don't think there is a massive life threat to the people in the building, but I think it's a bad idea to have ammunition anywhere in the building without a sprinkler system."

None of the police departments in the nation's five largest cities - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix - uses the city's municipal building to store gun and ammo evidence.

Instead, evidence is fortified within police headquarters or stored in off-site buildings not open to the public, according to representatives of those police agencies.

The Philadelphia Police Department's evidence unit has been storing guns and ammo in City Hall since 1957.

Capt. Michael Pohar, who heads the evidence unit, said there is no room in the Criminal Justice Center across from City Hall on Filbert Street or in police headquarters at 8th and Race streets. Besides, City Hall is a convenient location for police officers and prosecutors who need to pick up evidence for court, Pohar said.

"[Officers] come right up, they grab the evidence that is needed, they go right over to the Criminal Justice Center, they present their case, and they come right back," Pohar said.

As in Philadelphia, federal law-enforcement agencies are required to have a sprinkler system inside any room where ammo is stored, said Ernest Dorling, a former federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"The city shouldn't be immune from its own fire code, especially when you're dealing with materials that can explode," Custer said.

Philadelphia fire inspectors found that the Police Department was in violation of city fire codes in several areas. Not only were there no sprinklers or fire alarms in Room 715, but there was too much ammo - improperly stored in one of the busiest buildings in the city.

Through its 14 doors, hundreds of people enter City Hall daily to attend Council meetings, to visit Mayor Street's office, to apply for marriage licenses, to obtain property records or to attend hearings in Common Pleas Court.

During the work week, thousands of 9-to-5ers use the building's courtyard as a shortcut to and from work.

"What we want to do is make sure that it's safe so nobody can be injured," Ayers said.

Ayers said he wasn't worried about anyone raiding ammo from Room 715 because security is tight. The room is guarded by police during the day and a burglar alarm is activated at night. A padlocked metal gate covers the door.

From 7 a.m until 6 p.m., Room 715 is open to the public. Anyone who walks in is greeted by a police officer behind a counter. Off to the side is a room that looks like a cluttered walk-in closet stuffed with plastic bins of guns, and racks of rifles line the walls.

When City Hall is open, "The place is locked up tight," Ayers said. "It's like Fort Knox."

"I'm sure there is a way to break into Fort Knox," said the ATF's Dorling. "People can break into just about anything."

Capt. Pohar said no one can gain access to City Hall's basement without a key to the freight elevator.

"The freight elevator works on a key system," Pohar said. "If you don't have a key, you can't get down there."

Twice, however, a reporter hopped on the freight elevator and easily walked to the ammo-storage room in the basement.

"You went down there alone? Nobody stopped you?" Pohar asked.

"It's very secure," Pohar said about his evidence operation in general. "I'm very satisfied with the security. . . . I would not put anyone in jeopardy."

Fire officials were so troubled after discovering the ammunition, particularly on the seventh floor, that they told the Police Department to thin out the stockpile and make the room fire-safe.

"We informed them of the improper storage and how it could be fixed," Ayers said. "We told them they needed sprinklers and smoke alarms. . . . We stressed to them how important it was to get it done."

A few months ago, Ayers said, police officials moved a good chunk of the ammo out of Room 715, but he didn't know exactly how much."They went below the threshold of 800 pounds," he said.

Pohar said his staff removed an undisclosed amount of ammo from Room 715 and the basement room over the winter. He said the only ammo left in those two rooms is for active court cases.

"I had some excess of ammunition and I did get rid of it," Pohar said. The ammo was taken to the police firing range, given to the SWAT team for testing, or hauled to Fort Dix, N.J., to be destroyed, he said.

But nearly eight months after an inspector from the fire marshal's office expressed concern and nearly six months after the chief of the Fire Code Unit officially deemed the room in violation of city code, there are still no smoke alarms or sprinklers in the room.

City officials say they're working on it.

Bids were expected to be submitted this week to install a sprinkler system and fire alarms, estimated to cost $10,000 to $15,000, officials said.

The work is expected to be completed within six months, said city spokesman Ted Qualli.

"We don't have problems with the city as long as they are moving forward," Ayers said. "Everything is a process and it takes time."

From now on, Ayers said, any firefighter called to City Hall to battle a blaze will know there is ammo in Room 715 and the room in the basement, which is near the power plant and boiler room.

The ammo rooms will be clearly marked on a "vital building information sheet," used by firefighters as a guide when entering a burning structure, Ayers said. *