CHICAGO (WLS) — One person has died as Chicago firefighters battled an extra-alarm blaze that climbed through multiple floors of a South Side high-rise Wednesday.
The fire spread to several floors of the 25-story Harper Square Co-Operative building in the 4800-block of South Lake Park Avenue, CFD spokesman Larry Langford said.
Langford said one person was found dead in the building on the 15th floor.
Video from scene showed the fire climbing up the building in a column, perhaps reaching as many as nine floors.
The fire has since been put out.
This was a challenging blaze for first responders, not just because it is a high-rise but because the elevators went out early, meaning equipment and personnel had to get up there by foot.
Then there was also the factor of weather. Strong winds contributed to a really fast spread, all this happening as firefighters were trying to prioritize who needed to be evacuated and who could stay put.
CFD Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt said a resident on the 15th floor noticed smoke at about 10:08 a.m. and called 911. The blaze quickly escalated minute-by-minute, jumping up a total of nine floors.
“What we encountered here was because the fire went from the 15th all the way to the 14th floor was the fact that the wind was pushing,” Nance-Holt said. “The fire went up vertically and it lapped from floor to floor to floor, all the way up to 24 where my firefighters gained control of it.”
Hundreds of personnel were raced to the scene trying hard to stay ahead of it. The priority was making sure that the residents, were safe.
“We got a list of people who were maybe physically challenged. We got to those units first. We prioritized those guys and then made announcements as we evaluated conditions,” Deputy Commissioner Mark Furman said.
Some residents told to shelter-in-place while others were evacuated
Those who were able to get out safely did self-evacuate. Many more were asked to stay in put.
Bankole Oluyinka was at home with her daughter when the fire broke. She says she was told by building officials to stay inside her unit at the high-rise.
The shelter-in-place left many unsure what to do.
“I don’t know why they asked us to stay inside. My daughter kept calling them what do we do,” Oluyinka said.
“My mom, she can’t take the stairs, but she was told the same thing,” said fellow resident, David Walker.
Fearing for their lives, they decided to run down 23 flights of stairs.
“The smoke was everywhere I was shaken up, not until I saw the fire I had to run out,” Oluyinka said.
Leanne Faine said a neighbor knocked on her door to tell her and her husband about the fire.
“We ran down the stairs — we are on the 8th floor — they told us it was 15 and up so we didn’t know what to do. We ran down to the garage and got our car,” Faine said.
Phyllis Powell was at work nearby when her husband’s caregiver alerted her. They made it out of their unit but got stuck on the 7th floor.
“We tried to leave and fireman said we had to stay in place because we were three floors down from our place. We just had to stay. Couldn’t go down or couldn’t go up,” Powell said.
Another resident said a worker in the building told her about the fire.
“I asked, ‘Are we evacuating?’ And he said no and he stayed calm so I stayed calm. I didn’t realize the severity of it until I saw on the news,” said resident Astrid Exorthe.
She and others did evacuate on their own, mainly due to the smoke and water damage.
However, fire officials said self-evacuating could put them in danger.
“The protocol that we use with the Chicago Fire Department when dealing with a high-rise building, some units would be best for shelter in place and others evacuate,” Langford said. “What we generally do is evacuate the floor above and below the fire, depending upon the size of the building and the footprint of the building. A building like this, if you are some distance away and floors down and above, the fire is not spreading laterally, it is spreading vertically, so you are safe in some of the units.”
“High-rise building is fire resistance construction — is built with fire separations built in. The doors are fire rated doors to the apartment units. The stairways are enclosed, the hallways — it’s set up so you can remain in your unit and still be safe,” Furman explained.
Regardless, many people with loved ones in the building went into panic mode as the flames grew.
“I cried because I knew that was her building,” said Latina Brown, whose mom lives in the building.”
Brown said, at first, she couldn’t reach her mother who lives on the 15th floor where the fire is believed to have started. However, she later learned her mother was at work.
“I was just a concerned daughter. I just wanted to make sure my mom was safe and she is Ok,” Brown said.
“I decided to come downstairs to check everything out,” one building resident said. “I noticed people looking up at the building and then I just went downstairs and I saw that the fire was blazing at that time. I called my mom because my aunt is still in the building. Right now she is safe in someone else’s unit.
Around 12:30 p.m. CFD said the fire was struck. Nance-Holt said more than 300 personnel responded to the fire.
“A lot of people live here. A lot of people have been living here for 30 and 40 years so this is certainly devastating to me and them and their families, “state Representative Lamont Robinson said. “We want to thank the first responders for containing the fire.”
Looking up at the damage to their unit, Oluyinka said she is thankful that she and her daughter made it out safely.
“I am alive. My daughter is alive. That’s enough for me. Even though I lost everything I am alive. That’s the most important thing,” she said.
WATCH: CFD officials provide update on deadly high-rise fire
CFD said a 70-year-old woman was transported to a hospital in critical condition. Nance-Holt said eight residents were hospitalized. One firefighter who suffered an ortho injury was also taken to a hospital.
A woman in her 80s, who lived on the floor where the fire broke out, did lose her life. She has not been identified yet, but those who knew and loved her said she was a retired school teacher.
A close friend got the devastating news as she looked on praying for the best.
“I grew up here in the building and I always viewed her as an aunt,” said the victim’s friend Jauntanne Mayes. “I came back to check on to see how she was doing, if she was Ok because I had been trying to call and call and nobody had been able to reach her.”
News of the fatality is being felt by residents and neighbors.
“It’s heartbreaking. I’ve lived here for years,” said former resident Kamisha Hudson.
“I’m sad for the family who had the loss and really appreciate what these guys do because it could have been a lot worse,” said Theresa Riley, a friend of a resident.
“Just a really sweet, sweet person. Really generous. She will be missed by a lot of people,” Mayes said.
Building inspection violations
The I-Team reports that the building has failed its seven last inspections by the Department of Buildings (DOB), including one on December 1, 2022, for not testing the fire alarm and evacuation system.
“The Department of Buildings (DOB) takes public safety and quality of life issues very seriously. Our thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of the resident who passed away, the residents and firefighter that sustained injuries, and all those impacted by today’s tragic fire,” DOB said in part in a statement.
DOB also said during an inspection on November 7, 2022, violations for the interior door tags, exterior masonry and for failing to file the required high-rise exterior wall report were noted. The DOB also referred the violations to the Department of Law, which filed an enforcement action in the Circuit Court of Cook County, officials said. The court case is scheduled to be hears on Feburary 2.
“DOB inspectors were on the scene of today’s tragic fire and will work closely with the Chicago Fire Department in its investigation and assessment of the damage,” DOB added.
The apartment building, which was built in 1970, has 298 apartments in it, with about 267 units occupied, officials said.
Sources also tell ABC7 that individual units in this building do not have sprinklers.
The head of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board pointed out that after the deadly 2003 fire at the Cook County Administration Building,the city passed an ordinance requiring all residential high rises to pass what’s called a “life safety evaluation.”
The ordinance does not require sprinklers as long as buildings put in passive measures, such as self-closing doors to contain a fire.
Hoffer is urging the city of Chicago to re-evaluate its fire safety ordinance.
The Office of Emergency Management is on the scene with warming buses for residents and first responders. The Red Cross is also assisting.
It is unknown how many residents have been displaced by the fire.
The Salvation Army said they will be providing dinner for the residents and first responders. They are cooking 500 chicken sandwiches at the Elk Grove Village EDS kitchen and will have them delivered to the scene.
“While the situation is still evolving, many residents at this time are telling us that they have a place to stay. Our volunteers will help impacted residents with casework, health services and disaster mental health support, and shelter if residents indicate there is a need,” the Red Cross said.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
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