Eight people were killed in Little Village on Sunday morning — including at least six children — in what officials said was the deadliest city fire in a decade.
A teenager and a young adult also were rushed to hospitals in very critical condition, and a firefighter was hospitalized in good condition, according to fire officials.
Marcos Contreras, 15, said the fire struck a home where a group of his siblings and cousins were attending a sleepover. Early in the morning, he said, his sister woke him up and they ran to the blazing house.
“By the time we got here, the whole house was on fire,” he said. “They were taking out my cousins and my brothers.
“I don’t even got words to explain the pain I’m feeling right now,” Marcos said. “It just feels like my whole world is crashing.”
“Our family went through a tragedy today,” said Ramonita Reyes, who said she lost several grandchildren in the fire. “We lost several grandchildren, I’ve lost several grandchildren, Marcos has lost several brothers and sisters, friends, cousins, and we don’t even know what to say. This was a tragedy. Not anything I ever dreamed of.”
She said the family was “always together.”
“That’s why we never have family reunions — because we had them every day,” Contreras said. “We stuck together like glue. Nothing could separate us.”
Late Sunday, authorities had not released the names and ages of the victims. Krystle Sauseda, 31, who said she was an aunt of many of the victims, said they included four siblings from one family, three siblings from another family and an unrelated teen who was a close friend to the group.
As the sun rose and broke through hazy clouds earlier Sunday morning, a large crowd gathered outside Mount Sinai Hospital, where some of the victims were taken. Those in the crowd were quiet and pacing until they received word of the fatalities.
The family and friends gripped each other and cried. A little boy crouched on the ground and buried his head in his hands. A woman staggered and grabbed the cement wall of the hospital for support.
“I can’t live without my babies,” a woman cried.
Hours later, it was still unclear how the fire started in the 2200 block of South Sacramento Avenue on the West Side. Nearby, men cried, women held onto the hands of children and neighbors watched from across the street as Jessie Cobos said he was close to three of the children who died in the fire.
“We’re asking God to protect us, and he’ll heal our hearts,” Cobos said. “We’ve got to love each other today because tomorrow is not promised.”
The Rev. Clifford Spears of St. Michael Missionary Baptist Church led the crowd in a prayer as candles were lit and lined up along the sidewalk. A man hammered a wooden cross into the ground. Written in marker on its center board were six names: Giovanni, Gialanni, Alanni, Ariel, Xavier and Cesar. The name Victor was added later.
Cobos said he was a caretaker of Giovanni, 10, Gialanni, 5, and Alanni, 3.
“I got a phone call stating that there was a fire on this block and the pastor wanted me to come pray for the family,” he said. “I never knew I was going to come pray for my own kids.”
Cobos said the trio was “amazing” as he cried and held onto a little Mickey Mouse stuffed animal from the Red Cross. Gio was a happy little kid who loved to play outside and play Fortnite, he said.
“Alanni, she was just a sweet little girl,” he said. “And Gia was just a beautiful soul.
“Anything could happen from one minute or the next,” he said. “If I could only go back to last night and give my kids one more hug, let them know that they are loved.”
Firefighters were called just before 4 a.m. Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Merritt said investigators had not found working smoke detectors.
Fire officials were still working to determine the cause of the fire, aided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to spokeswoman Larry Langford. They determined the blaze started in an enclosed porch at the back of the rear building, he said.
Langford said the fire was the deadliest in Chicago in more than a decade, but it could have been avoided if smoke detectors had been in use.
“It was not hard to get out. The fire started in the rear, and the entryway to the front was wide open,” Langford said. “Had they been awake or if someone had woken them, they would have gotten out.”
At an unrelated event Sunday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised firefighters’ response. “There’s a horrific loss of life. We haven’t seen this in a long time in the city of Chicago,” he said.
The homes were just south of a main business corridor on Cermak Road populated with restaurants and shops. Emergency crews staged a massive scene at the corner of Cermak and Sacramento.
On Sunday, city workers boarded up the windows of three homes where the fire had spread. Two were street-facing greystones with multiple apartment units and three stories tall. The third unit, where the children died, was a brown brick cottage set behind the twin apartment buildings but visible from the street with an outside staircase and a front porch.
As people came to look at the scene, several stopped at a pop-up memorial of candles, balloons and stuffed animals erected on the lot next door to kneel and say a prayer.
Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, said community organizations were working in coordination with the Red Cross to assist families.
Throughout the morning, workers from the Red Cross handed out drinks and snacks, and were on-site to provide support.
“Our hearts go out to the families and children impacted by this type of fire,” said Celena Roldan, chief executive officer for the Red Cross in Chicago and Northern Illinois.
Roldan said the Red Cross will help those affected by the fire find financial assistance, provide mental health support, and organize community memorials and funerals in the coming weeks.
In the next week, the Red Cross will carry out a “reactive canvas,” working with the Fire Department and alderman’s office to install smoke alarms in the area.
“We know that seven people die in home fires every day in this country, and it’s the number one disaster that we respond to,” Roldan said.
On Sunday evening, police closed off the street as about 60 people came to pay their respects and launch white balloons into the air. A group of firefighters also came to join in prayer.
As the balloons floated skyward, the mother of several of the children shouted, “Fly high, my babies. I love you.”
———Madeline Buckley, Morgan Greene and Elyssa Cherney
©2018 the Chicago Tribune
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