Man faces arson charges in West Side blaze

March 1, 2011 9:01:57 PM PST
A 28-year-old man faces felony arson charges for allegedly starting a West Side apartment fire that critically injured an infant and displaced dozens of residents.

Johnell Walker was arrested Tuesday afternoon. He faces three felony counts in connection with the fire last night in the 700 block of North Central Avenue.

According to police reports, Walker may have lit a firework inside an apartment after a dispute with a girlfriend. He is expected to appear in bond court Wednesday morning.

A 6-month-old girl is hospitalized in critical condition after being burned in the fire. Police say it was set after 9 p.m. Monday.

Firefighters rescued up to 100 people from the building on the 700-block of North Central. While some firefighters ran in to lead the residents to safety, other firefighters used ladders to help people trapped in their upper-floor apartments.

"We pulled up on the scene, and it was people hanging from the windows. Me and my partner grabbed the ladder. We threw it up to the third floor. The guy was yelling that he had a prosthetic leg so he couldn't walk," said Eddie Galloza, Chicago Fire Dept.

It's hard to tell that the gutted and charred apartment where the fire began was once inhabitable.

"It's hard to explain. It was just a big boom that's all was heard. That's all we could say, big boom and that was it," said Cathy Redmond.

Redmond's first-floor apartment is OK, but others weren't as fortunate. She has taken in neighbor Tony Brown and his girlfriend. Thirty-six people have been displaced in all.

Brown said he doesn't know how much of his belongings were lost.

"I don't know," he said. "I can't even get in there to check. They won't let nobody in there."

It took fire crews less than an hour to put out the flames. But the time it will take for residents to pick up the pieces might feel like forever.

Firefighters say their rescue efforts saved more people from harm.

"Nice job by our group. These guys, they saved a lot of lives with fast action," said John Sheehan, Chicago Fire Dept.

As for the investigation, police are questioning the man they say lit a firecracker during a domestic disturbance.

"I heard, like, a piece of dynamite. It was, 'Boom.' My door was locked, and it popped open. It was crazy. Everybody go outside and everybody was, like, running through the building going crazy," said Corey Coakley, resident.

The Red Cross is working with people who have been displaced.