East Garfield Park strip mall fire investigation underway

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At least three businesses have been destroyed by a fire at a strip mall in East Garfield Park, fire officials said. (WLS)

Investigators returned to the scene of the fire that ripped a strip mall in East Garfield Park on Monday night to try and determine if the fire is the work on a arsonist.

Residents of Chicago's East Garfield Park neighborhood said the loss of three businesses at Kedzie and Van Buren is a big blow for the community.

Crews returned to the scene early Tuesday morning to put out hot spots that flared up overnight.

Around 7:15 p.m. Monday, firefighters raced to the row of businesses, which included a Family Dollar, a beauty supply store and a J&J Fish restaurant, in the 400-block of South Kedzie Avenue. When they arrived, the stores were engulfed by flames.

Fortunately no one was injured.

"I was walking past. I just got off the Blue Line and saw the smoke coming out. I stuck around and then it started flaming, started getting real bad. The smoke was coming up in a big funnel, twisting around," said Oliver Noel, a witness.

Due to the intensity of the fire, more than 150 firefighters were called to the scene. They tried to fight the flames from the inside, but were soon forced back out.

"When they realized it was lightweight construction and the fire is aggressively gaining momentum, they back out. Lightweight construction will fail very quickly," said Michael Carbone, Assistant Fire Chief, Chicago Fire Department.

The police arson unit is investigating this as a suspicious fire.

While fire officials believe the beauty supply and dollar store could have had flammable items inside, the pace of the fire is what has the attention of investigators.

"It could have been a lot of things. It could have been the fire load inside the occupancy. You've got a lot of aerosol cans, you've got a lot of chemicals in there and that could have fueled the fire. There's a lot of paper products and a lot of product, a lot of liquid products and a lot of flammable products there," Carbone said.

The fire was struck out by around 10 p.m. Two firefighters were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. They are expected to be OK.

The first calls to 911 were for smoke but when fire crews arrived less than 4 minutes later, firefighters saw flames shooting from the center.

Unray Williams was among the residents those who called 911.

"It was one fire in the front, one in the back, one on the side, one in the front, one in the back. All burning at the same time? They were all smoking," said Williams.

Williams is no arson investigator but from his back porch he saw what he calls a suspicious fire pattern.

Brandy McQueen intended to pick up products from the beauty shop Tuesday. But there was nothing left.

"If they get fire it can spread real fast. Your hair extensions, it can spread real fast," McQueen said. "They were real good. One of the best beauty supplies in Chicago."

Officials said it is unlikely anything from the three properties will be salvageable. The owner of the beauty shop plans to rebuild.

"This is a neighborhood plaza and provided more for the neighbors than anyone else. It's a catastrophe," said Fred Akkawi, who owns the shopping center.

Akkawi said the owner of the beauty supply store told him Monday night that the fire appeared to have started at the back of the Family Dollar. Investigators have not yet determined how or where the flames broke out.

A restaurant at the end of the strip mall survived the blaze. The owner plans to open re-open to customers later on Tuesday.
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