Extra-alarm blaze destroys building

CHICAGO It took firefighters hours to finally get the upper hand on the blaze. Flames were shooting through the roof of the Vital Rehabilitation Clinic building on Irving Park as heavy smoke poured across the entire neighborhood.

By 11 a.m. the fire was mostly out. There was a time Friday morning when the smoke was so thick that visibility was reduced to a couple of feet. The thick, black smoke spread all across this area. The effect was that, essentially, it visually smothered the firefighters who were there to try to put water on this fire and get it under control.

Around 8:20 Friday morning, when firefighters arrived, people were still in the building. There were three people inside what was a medical rehabilitation center. At that point, there was only just a light haze of smoke. No one saw any flames.

Three employees of the Vital Rehabilitation Clinic first noticed the light, hazy smoke -- it took firefighters and a heat-sensing camera to discover that up above the drop ceiling tar, wood and other roofing materials were on fire.

"The smoke started turning colors, it was getting hotter and hotter. You feel the heat on your face and the exposed skin like that," said Bill Lopez, Chicago Fire Dept, Tower Ladder 23.

Firefighters realized that the fire had gone inside the roof area between the roof and the ceiling. At that point, the battalion chief ordered all the companies outside, asked the three employees to come out, and began fighting the fire.

Complicating matters: a truss roof. They burn quickly and collapse without warning. Within minutes, the fire claimed the building and was threatening the rest of the block.

"We were wondering if the fire spread what else could explode," said Robby Roxas, witness.

A truss roof is almost the worst-case scenario for firefighters. Across the country there have been many instances when they quickly collapsed and occasionally killed firefighters. That's why immediately when they discover a fully involved fire and a building with a truss roof, firefighters essentially move into a defensive position. That's what they did Friday.

"You love what you're doing, you love being up in the smoke and it really doesn't bother you. You like to get your clothes dirty -- it's a lot of fun," said Dave DiMaggio, Chicago Fire Dept, Tower Ladder 23.

One firefighter suffered minor injuries.

The clinic that burned helps amputees, those who have undergone surgery or other significant trauma regain their strength and mobility. The local alderman tells ABC7 the business just remodeled in the last few years. He hopes they'll be able to rebuild.

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