Owner facing charges in firefighter deaths

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December 21, 2011 3:07:56 PM PST
Charges have been filed against the owner of a building that collapsed, killing Chicago two firefighters last year.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the deadly fire and building collapse, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez announced a criminal contempt of court action against the South Shore building's owner for failing to comply with court-ordered requirements to repair and secure the vacant building.

Before the fire broke out December 22, 2010, the owner of the building had been cited for several code violations.

Chuck Dai, 61, of South Holland, is accused of failing to comply with court-ordered requirements. In 2007, records show that city inspectors cited the owner for 14 separate code violations, including a problem with the roof.

Firefighters Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer were battling the fire when the roof suddenly collapsed. They were dug out from the rubble but later pronounced dead.

The two firefighters killed were among more than a dozen firefighters searching the abandoned laundry business at 1700 East 75th Street when part of the building came crashing down.

Seventeen other firefighters were hurt in the department's deadliest fire in more than a dozen years.

"While the building was vacant, there were reports that homeless persons from the neighborhood had been going into the building for shelter and occasionally started fires to keep warm," said Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.

That's long been the assumption, though the cause of the fire that led to Stringer and Ankum's deaths has never been determined.

Alvarez said she is not alleging any involvement by the owner in the setting of the fire nor causing the deaths intentionally.

"He was, however, responsible for the conditions of the building that he owned. With today's actions, we seek to hold him accountable," Alvarez said. "He was present when the court order was entered. He signed it. He agreed to it to make the necessary, to repair the necessary violations. And it was never abided by."

Gene Murphy, Dai's attorney, said there's no evidence his client violated the court order.

"There isn't a single report on behalf of the city where there was an investigation subsequent to the order being signed in October 2009 where there was an inspection done saying my client was in violation," he said."On behalf of the Dai family, we'd like to say this is a horrible, horrible tragic situation."

Dai's attorney says his client plans to plead not guilty to the criminal charge, likely next week in court.

On Wednesday, officials disputed a report by a federal agency that laid part of the blame for the casualties on a shortage of radios at the scene.

"We were listening to the radios clearly. We were talking to each other. Information was going back and forth. People were responding to the radio communications," said Dep. Commissioner Jose Santiago, Chicago Fire Department.

Stringer's daughter, Jennifer, 23, lays the blame for her father's death squarely on the owners of the abandoned building that collapsed.

"My dad, Edward Stringer, lost his life because of a negligent owner," Jennifer Stringer said in October. "Neither my father nor his comrade would have died that day if this building had been properly secured or better yet, torn down."

Jennifer Stringer filed a six-page lawsuit in October that noted the building was in foreclosure.

Both Stringer and her attorney say they hoped their lawsuit would spur the city and state to enact tougher penalties on owners who let their properties fall into disrepair, presenting hazards for firefighters.

"We would like this lawsuit to be an eye opener for everyone so that law is changed and becomes much harsher," said the family's attorney, Peter Flowers. "The owners and, frankly the banks, that own these properties have to take action to eradicate these threats."

In September, a federal report found that the failure of the Shicago Fire Department to implement certain safety precautions contributed to the firefighters' deaths. The Stringer family, though, does not find the department at fault.

"We thought the fire department did a good job in responding to this as they normally do and have no issues with their conduct," Flowers said.

The widow of Corey Ankum also filed a lawsuit in August.

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