The fire broke out at about 10:13 a.m. Wednesday in the 700-block of West Oakton Street. Officials said the fire started in the second floor near the top of the stairs, trapping the victims upstairs with no way to escape the century-old building.
Neighbors said the girls' father, Juan Espinosa, was at work at the time. His brother, Horacio Espinosa, lives next door. He said it's very difficult to find words to express the sadness his family feels. He said they are grateful for support from the community, but life will never be the same.
As a memorial outside the home grows, Violet Garcia started a GoFundMe account to raise money to bring the mother's parents here from Mexico for the funeral.
"We're hanging in there, we're trying to help each other out here with each other's company," Garcia said.
Downstairs neighbor Pabel Marrero said he woke up Wednesday first to the familiar sound of children running upstairs, and then to the unsettling smell of burning plastic and a passing stranger banging at the door.
"He's screaming at me to come out of the house because the house is on fire," Marrero said.
"I was shocked," said Yein Espinosa, whose brother lost his four daughters in the fire. "I was worried about the kids, the girls, pretty much and everyone who was inside. Where are they? What happened to them?"
Espinosa said the family remains heartbroken.
"They were awesome kids, full of happiness and playing around," Espinosa said.
Responding firefighters learned there were people still inside the two-story, side-by-side duplex and immediately began a search-and-rescue operation.
"We're telling them, 'There is kids up there, kids up there,'" Merrero said. "They're trying to kick the door down, but the door wasn't coming down."
'This is a terrible day,' Des Plaines fire chief gives update on fatal fire
By the time firefighters broke in through black smoke and flames, it may well have been too late.
"One of the firefighters comes out with one of the girls in his hand and she's blackened by all the smoke and all the stuff. She is semi-conscious," Marrero said. "A minute or two goes by, there's another one that comes out in the same condition."
The four sisters who died were identified by their family as Grace Nicole Espinosa Zamudio, 1, Allison Valentina Espinosa Zamudio, 3, Genesis Aislinn Espinosa Zamudio, 5, and Renata Paulette Espinosa Zamudio, 6.
The children were taken to hospitals and pronounced dead, while their mother Nancy Cithlaly Zamudio Rodriguez, 25, died at the scene, officials said.
"This is a tragedy that I have not seen in my 34 years, 36 years of fire service," Des Plaines Fire Chief Daniel Anderson said. "This is a terrible day, a tragic day for Des Plaines."
Des Plaines officials said the city last inspected the property in 2018. At that time, it met all of the inspection requirements, including the required amount of smoke and CO detectors. Fire officials said Thursday there were no working smoke detectors in the unit.