Chicago high-rise fire: 1 dead in extra-alarm fire that tore through multiple floors, CFD says

ByMichelle Gallardo, Liz Nagy, Leah Hope, Cate Cauguiran, and Stephanie Wade, ABC7 Chicago Digital Team WLS logo
Thursday, January 26, 2023
A Chicago high-rise fire at a Kenwood co-op building tore through multiple floors and left 1 person dead and 8 injured, Chicago fire officials said.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- One person died in an extra-alarm fire that climbed through multiple floors of a South Side high-rise Wednesday.

The fire spread to several floors of the 25-story Harper Square Co-Operative building in the 4800-block of South Lake Park Avenue, CFD spokesman Larry Langford said.

Langford said one person was found dead on the 15th floor.

CFD Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt said a resident on the 15th floor noticed smoke at about 10:08 a.m. and called 911. Video from scene showed the fire climbing up the building in a column, perhaps reaching as many as nine floors.

A massive fire has spread to several floors of a high-rise building in the Kenwood neighborhood Wednesday.

The fire was struck out around 12:30 p.m. Nance-Holt said about 300 personnel responded to the scene.

This was a challenging blaze for first responders, not just because of the high-rise building, but because the elevators went out early so equipment and personnel had to get to the upper floors on foot.

Strong winds from the snow storm also contributed to the fire's fast spread as responders tried to prioritize who had to be evacuated immediately and who could safely stay where they were.

"What we encountered here was, because the fire went from the 15th all the way to the 14th floor was the fact that the wind was pushing," Nance-Holt said. "The fire went up vertically and it lapped from floor to floor to floor, all the way up to 24 where my firefighters gained control of it."

Hundreds of firefighters, paramedics and first responders worked to ensure people were safe.

"We got a list of people who were maybe physically challenged. We got to those units first. We prioritized those guys and then made announcements as we evaluated conditions," Deputy Commissioner Mark Furman said.

CFD said a 70-year-old woman was transported to a hospital in critical condition. Nance-Holt said eight residents were hospitalized. One firefighter who suffered an orthopedic injury was also taken to a hospital.

A woman in her 80s, who lived on the floor where the fire broke out, died. She has not been identified yet, but those who knew and loved her said she was a retired school teacher.

WATCH: CFD officials provide update on deadly high-rise fire

Chicago Fire Department officials provided an update on a deadly high-rise fire in Kenwood.

A close friend got the devastating news as she looked on praying for the best.

"I grew up here in the building and I always viewed her as an aunt," said the victim's friend Jauntanne Mayes. "I came back to check on to see how she was doing, if she was Ok because I had been trying to call and call and nobody had been able to reach her."

News of the fatality is being felt by residents and neighbors.

"It's heartbreaking. I've lived here for years," said former resident Kamisha Hudson.

"I'm sad for the family who had the loss and really appreciate what these guys do because it could have been a lot worse," said Theresa Riley, a friend of a resident.

"Just a really sweet, sweet person. Really generous. She will be missed by a lot of people," Mayes said.

Some residents told to shelter in place while others were evacuated

Some were evacuated, others told to shelter in place, but residents of a Kenwood high-rise said they followed their fight or flight instincts during the massive fire Wednesday.

Some residents who were able to get out safely self-evacuated the building. Many more were asked to shelter in place.

Residents said their fight or flight reactions kicked in when the fire started.

"I looked out my window and saw the flames. They were right up under me," said Margo King.

King said she smelled the smoke, went to her window and saw flames bursting from a floor below her. She ran.

"I opened it and stuck my head out. The flame was coming out so bad. It scared me so bad," King said. "My eyes started burning, my throat got sore. That's why I put my mask on in the house. Crazy."

Hours later, she returned to see the extent of the damage and found her unit destroyed.

Bankole Oluyinka was at home with her daughter when the fire broke out. She said she was told by building officials to stay inside her unit.

"I don't know why they asked us to stay inside. My daughter kept calling them, what do we do?" Oluyinka said.

"My mom, she can't take the stairs, but she was told the same thing," said fellow resident, David Walker.

Fearing for their lives, they decided to run down 23 flights of stairs.

"The smoke was everywhere, I was shaken up, not until I saw the fire I had to run out," Oluyinka said.

Leanne Faine said a neighbor knocked on her door to tell her and her husband about the fire.

"We ran down the stairs -- we are on the 8th floor -- they told us it was 15 and up, so we didn't know what to do. We ran down to the garage and got our car," Faine said. "He just had a pacemaker put in. We were afraid because he can't go down the steps like we can. He's got to ease down the steps. I was so frayed, I said, 'Come on baby, come on, we can't get burned up in here, let's go, come on!'"

Phyllis Powell was at work nearby when her husband's caregiver alerted her. They made it out of their unit but got stuck on the 7th floor.

"We tried to leave and fireman said we had to stay in place because we were three floors down from our place. We just had to stay. Couldn't go down or couldn't go up," Powell said.

Another resident said a worker in the building told her about the fire.

"I asked, 'Are we evacuating?' And he said no and he stayed calm, so I stayed calm. I didn't realize the severity of it until I saw on the news," said resident Astrid Exorthe.

She and others did evacuate on their own, mainly due to the smoke and water damage. However, fire officials said self-evacuating can put people in danger.

"The protocol that we use with the Chicago Fire Department when dealing with a high-rise building, some units would be best for shelter in place and others evacuate," Langford said. "What we generally do is evacuate the floor above and below the fire, depending upon the size of the building and the footprint of the building. A building like this, if you are some distance away and floors down and above, the fire is not spreading laterally, it is spreading vertically, so you are safe in some of the units."

"High-rise building is fire resistance construction -- is built with fire separations built in. The doors are fire rated doors to the apartment units. The stairways are enclosed, the hallways -- it's set up so you can remain in your unit and still be safe," Furman explained.

Regardless, many people with loved ones in the building went into panic mode as the flames grew.

"I cried because I knew that was her building," said Latina Brown, whose mom lives in the building."

Brown said, at first, she couldn't reach her mother, who lives on the 15th floor. However, she later learned her mother was at work.

"I was just a concerned daughter. I just wanted to make sure my mom was safe and she is Ok," Brown said.

"I decided to come downstairs to check everything out," one building resident said. "I noticed people looking up at the building and then I just went downstairs and I saw that the fire was blazing at that time. I called my mom because my aunt is still in the building. Right now she is safe in someone else's unit.

"A lot of people live here. A lot of people have been living here for 30 and 40 years so this is certainly devastating to me and them and their families," State Representative Lamont Robinson said. "We want to thank the first responders for containing the fire."

Looking up at the damage to their unit, Oluyinka said she is thankful that she and her daughter made it out safely.

"I am alive. My daughter is alive. That's enough for me. Even though I lost everything, I am alive. That's the most important thing," she said.

Building inspection violations

The I-Team reports that the building has failed its seven last inspections by the Department of Buildings.

The I-Team reports that the building has failed its seven last inspections by the Department of Buildings (DOB), including one on December 1, 2022, for not testing the fire alarm and evacuation system.

"The Department of Buildings (DOB) takes public safety and quality of life issues very seriously. Our thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of the resident who passed away, the residents and firefighter that sustained injuries, and all those impacted by today's tragic fire," DOB said in part in a statement.

DOB also said during an inspection on November 7, 2022, violations for the interior door tags, exterior masonry and for failing to file the required high-rise exterior wall report were noted. The DOB also referred the violations to the Department of Law, which filed an enforcement action in the Circuit Court of Cook County, officials said. The court case is scheduled to be hears on Feburary 2.

"DOB inspectors were on the scene of today's tragic fire and will work closely with the Chicago Fire Department in its investigation and assessment of the damage," DOB added.

The apartment building, which was built in 1970, has 298 apartments in it, with about 267 units occupied, officials said.

Sources also tell ABC7 that individual units in this building do not have sprinklers.

The head of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board pointed out that after the deadly 2003 fire at the Cook County Administration Building, the city passed an ordinance requiring all residential high rises to pass what's called a "life safety evaluation."

RELATED: Advisory board urges Chicago to reevaluate fire safety ordinance, require fire sprinklers

The ordinance does not require sprinklers as long as buildings put in passive measures, such as self-closing doors to contain a fire.

"In this fire, the fire did have an opportunity to escape so it did effect other units, so we can see a building that has passed the life safety evaluation still does not get the job done," said Erik Hoffer, the director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board.

Hoffer is urging the city of Chicago to re-evaluate its fire safety ordinance.

It is unknown how many residents have been displaced by the fire.

The Salvation Army said they will be providing dinner for the residents and first responders. They are cooking 500 chicken sandwiches at the Elk Grove Village EDS kitchen and will have them delivered to the scene.

"While the situation is still evolving, many residents at this time are telling us that they have a place to stay. Our volunteers will help impacted residents with casework, health services and disaster mental health support, and shelter if residents indicate there is a need," the Red Cross said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.