Large fire rips through West Rogers Park strip mall near Lincoln, Peterson

November 15, 2013 (CHICAGO)

PHOTOS: West Rogers Park Strip Mall Fire

Chicago Fire Department investigators said Friday night that the fire began as "a result of actions by a roofing crew using propane torches," and that the Chicago Police Department is now investigating.

Officials say the fire was struck just before 6 p.m., but crews continued to fight hotspots as they flared up early Friday evening. According to fire officials, a mattress store, eye care store and furniture store were completely destroyed.

The four-alarm fire spread throughout the strip mall Friday afternoon. At least six businesses were involved in the blaze, including an American Mattress store, Mid-America Furniture store, For Eyes optical store and a nail salon.

The fire was reported to have started around 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. The massive flames and thick smoke billowing from the structure could be seen for miles, despite a massive response from fire fighters. More than 200 of them on more than 60 fire trucks poured thousands of gallons of water on the flames. It took them nearly two hours to get the fire under control.

"They did a great job, cutting off the extension of the fire where they did and the building construction helped us a little bit. There was an intact fire wall that stopped the spread of the fire," said Michael Callahan, Deputy Fire Commissioner.

The fire apparently smoldered for a while. Customers and employees inside several of the stores in the mall could see the smoke getting thicker, and knew it was time to get out.

Mary Ellison was in the nail salon.

"I was just kinda glad to be out of there, like, OK, everybody's safe. I never dreamed it would turn into what it turned into," said Mary Ellison, witness.

As the fire continued, fueled by merchandise in a mattress store and the Mid America furniture store, the roof collapsed.

And at one point there were several explosions, which fire fighters believe may have been caused by propane tanks the roofers were using.

For the owner of the Mid-America Furniture store, it is heartbreaking to watch. The store has been in business 25 years.

"We called 911 and we ran outside, and that's it. In five minutes, everything was on fire," said Sammy Dajani, furniture store owner.

"I just wanna cry because no one deserves this, it's a tragedy," said Jeni Zataut, customer.

At 5 p.m., CFD spokesperson Larry Langford spoke with Eyewitness News.

"It is still spreading through the structure. This is a building with many small stores in it. . . There is a mattress store, which is the scene of the fire. The mattresses are burning, that's a very intense flame. We have a 3-11 response now, I can tell you we are not yet winning on this fire. Throwing a lot of water on it, it is in an area where it's not going to leave this main structure, no other buildings right around it," said Larry Langford, Chicago Fire Department.

There were no reports on any injuries.

"All indications are that everyone got out OK," said Langford.

Fire snarls traffic, cuts power to West Rogers Park residents

Large stretches of Peterson and Lincoln Avenues remain closed on Friday night. And it's not just fire and police on the scene. Utility crews were on the scene as well, after hundreds of neighborhood residents lost power.

From behind the strip mall, the raging fire threatened nearby homes.

"Especially the area was windy, very windy, and it was very scary," said Francis Bijou, who shot cell phone video of the fire.

As the wind blew smoke and burning embers into the neighborhood, firefighters stepped in, pulling on-lookers away.

"I thought we were going to lose the house. I thought my neighborhood was going to be gone. It was just unbelievable. I've never seen a fire this big in my life," said Bob Wachniak, neighborhood resident.

When the fire started, Bob Wachniak was a mile away and says he hopped in his car after receiving a neighbor's call.

Traffic was already crawling because of road closures, so he says he ditched his vehicle and sprinted more than half a mile to his house, quickly evacuating his elderly mother and disabled sister.

"Just please get out of the house. Leave everything alone because the gas is already turned off. The electricity went out. And I just wanted to make sure they were outside the house safe and calm," said Wachniak.

As the inferno lit up the block, parts of the neighborhood went dark. At least 700 power customers lost electricity when equipment was damaged.

Lois Thomas and her grandchildren spent much of the night in the dark.

"I'm just ready to go bed and just wait it out. Tomorrow is Saturday. So I'm just happy to be alive and glad my family is fine, and I'm glad nobody got hurt," said Lois Thomas, neighbor.

Late Friday night, the lights came back on at Lois Thomas's house and others here in the neighborhood. ComEd says all affected customers are back online.

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