Deadly high-rise fire caused by careless use of smoking materials, Chicago Fire Department says

Paperwork obtained by I-Team shows building was not in fire compliance at time of blaze

ByDiane Pathieu, Eric Horng, Chuck Goudie, and Christian Piekos WLS logo
Friday, January 27, 2023
Deadly high-rise fire caused by smoking materials, CFD says
The Chicago Fire Department said a deadly Kenwood high-rise fire was started by smoking materials. Now 130 units are uninhabitable, the city said.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A deadly Kenwood high-rise fire was caused by careless use of smoking materials, the Chicago Fire Department said Thursday.

One woman died and nine others were hurt in the incident, including a firefighter, at an apartment building on South Lake Park Avenue Wednesday morning.

CFD said smoking materials ignited combustibles in a bedroom and ruled the fire an accident. A smoke detector was in the residence but was not working, CFD said.

The fire broke out in the 15th floor of the 25-story Harper Square Co-Op building in the 4800-block of South Lake Park Avenue just after 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Wind caused the fire to spread very quickly, going vertically from floor to floor all the way up to the 24th floor.

The Chicago Fire Department said a deadly Kenwood high-rise fire was started by smoking materials. Now nearly half the units are uninhabitable.

It took hundreds of firefighters to knock out the flames, and the elevators were out, so all of the equipment had to be lifted up manually.

One woman found dead on the 15th floor. Eight other residents were injured. A firefighter was also injured. Now more than 130 units have been deemed uninhabitable by the city.

Latasha Staggers lives in the adjacent building and watched as the fire roared.

"I smelled the smoke first, and when I went to the window, I saw the black smoke, then I heard in the hallway, 'please do not leave your unit. We are on lockdown.' So I stayed in my unit. My thought process was, they say leave, just be ready, and stay calm," Staggers said.

Many who live in the high-rise are devastated at the loss.

The Salvation Army stepped in to provide their support by delivering meals to residents.

The identity of the woman killed has not yet been released, but those who knew her said she was a retired teacher in her 80s.

Residents of the Harper Square Co-Op were initially told by the building's management that they could retrieve important personal belongings like medicine, jewelry and keys earlier Thursday afternoon, but the plan was shut down by the city.

Fire safety advocates said if the Kenwood apartments that caught fire Wednesday had sprinklers in their units, the fire could have been more controlled.

"When can I get back to my place? Is it going to be safe? What am I going to do? Am I going to have to find a new place to live?" wondered Mary Gordon, resident.

Gordon has called the building home for 20 years.

"I don't know if we can live here, where I'm gonna go?" she said.

The charred aftermath of the fire has left residents with little information about what to do or where to go for help.

"No one's been able to tell us anything, which I understand, it just happened. But there should have been some direction," said one resident, who did not share their name and also asked not to have her face shown on camera.

She described the frantic moments when she tried to grab her belongings before being forced to evacuate after the fire.

"So I grabbed two big duffle bags, grabbed enough stuff for my son and myself for a couple of days and I asked them when we're going to come back and they said they didn't know," she said.

The building's property manager sent an email to residents affected by the fire, writing they are diligently working to board up the affected areas. The email even invited residents to quickly return to the building to be escorted to their floors and grab important personal belongings.

But residents told ABC7 the city reportedly canceled those plans, leaving them confused with what to do next.

ABC7 reached out to the property manager in hopes of finding out when residents might be allowed back in their units, but was told they could not speak about that.

Building inspection violations

The I-Team has learned that after being in violation for more than a year, 4850 South Lake Park just today submitted certification by outside contractor Fox Valley Fire & Safety.

The I-Team reports that the building has failed its seven last inspections by the Department of Buildings (DOB), including one on Dec. 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.

Buildings like this one hire private investigation firms to conduct yearly fire equipment tests and the submit paperwork to prove city compliance.

The I-Team has learned that after being in violation for more than a year, 4850 South Lake Park Thursday submitted certification by outside contractor Fox Valley Fire & Safety. Paper work the I-Team obtained shows fire alarms passed inspection.

But the records submitted Thursday were for testing done at the end of 2021, more than a year ago. So at the time of the fire, the high rise was still not in fire compliance,

DOB also said during an inspection on Nov. 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 Feb. 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 Chicago 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.