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Smoke detector found in ruins of Little Village fire where 10 children died

A memorial remains in front of a three-story apartment building in the 2200 block of South Sacramento Avenue on Wednesday. A fire in a second-story apartment behind this building claimed the lives of 10 children. Eight died Sunday, another on Monday and the final victim died at Stroger Hospital on Tuesday. | Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times

On Wednesday, Chicago fire officials said they found a smoke detector in the wreckage of the apartment in Little Village where a fire killed 10 children earlier this week.

The smoke detector didn’t have a working battery, officials said. Previously, investigators had said they couldn’t find any smoke detectors in the building, though the landlord had insisted they were there.

And, though the cause of the fire remained undetermined Wednesday, federal investigators were analyzing “an electrical device unrelated to earlier violations.” Officials would not be more specific about that the device was or why it was being analyzed.

Meanwhile, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised to ask tough questions of city officials but only after investigators determine the cause of Sunday’s early-morning fire.

Given the history of code violations in the building where the fatal fire occurred, Emanuel was asked if he has questions in his own mind about whether his Department of Buildings did all it could to prevent the tragedy.

“Are you kidding? They’re not questions in my mind. I’ve asked Judy [Frydland, buildings commissioner] I’ve asked Jose [Santiago] of the Fire Department, the Building Department and everybody. I said, What the … happened here. And I left the word out,” Emanuel said.

“We have a tragic loss of life. We haven’t had something like this in recent memory. … The good news is, we haven’t had this type of loss of life in years. So, a lot of the preventive stuff we’ve done over the years has worked.”

Emanuel said there is a lot of “educated guessing” as to the cause of the fire in the 2200 block of South Sacramento Avenue; victims ranged in age from 3 months to 16 years old.

But, he added, instead of “jumping to conclusions,” he’s wants to wait for the definitive word about the cause before “pointing fingers” and charting a path forward.

“I want to know how it got started. Why it happened. … When the investigation is done, we’re gonna know more before you start pointing fingers of who’s to blame,” he said.

“You’re jumping to conclusions. … I’m not gonna accept right now the line of questioning that assumes [somebody dropped the ball]. … My first thoughts are about the tragic loss of life. Then we’ll figure out what happened and what are the other actions we can [take]. Whether it’s fire alarms and other types of things we can [do to] prevent this in the future.”

The deadliest residential fire in years in Chicago claimed its 10th victim on Tuesday. | Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times
The deadliest residential fire in years in Chicago claimed its 10th victim on Tuesday. | Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times

The fire broke out about 4 a.m. in a two-story building behind a greystone three-flat in the 2200 block of South Sacramento. They children all were in an apartment on the second floor of that building, located between the garage and the greystone apartment building.

Chicago Fire Department investigators were unable to find smoke detectors in the second floor of the coach house that caught fire, officials said. The same unit came under the scrutiny of city inspectors in 2015 for not having smoke detectors, but the problem was fixed, records show. The first-floor unit of that building was vacant and boarded up.

The 10 who died included:

• Six siblings from one family (Adrian Hernandez, 14; Cesar Contreras, 14; Nathan Contreras, 13; Xavier Contreras, 11;

Ariel Garcia, 5; Amaya Almarez, 3 months)

• Three siblings from another family (Giovanni Ayala, 10; Gialanni Ayala, 5; and Alanni Ayala, 3).

• A family friend, Victor Mendoza, 16.

The two groups of siblings were cousins.

The child death toll matched the highest in a Chicago fire since the infamous Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School fire in 1958, which claimed 92 kids.

Family and friends gathered at the site of the fire for a third day on Wednesday. Residents and community organizations organized a potluck lunch for the affected families; besides the building where the children died, residents of the apartment building in front of it, and the apartment building next door, also have not been able to stay in their homes while the investigation continues.

Some brought cash to help pay for the funerals, and laid flowers on the crosses adorned with photos of the deceased.

Enrique Enriquez, a Little Village resident, lauded his neighborhood’s responses, and questioned why the mayor hasn’t visited, or why no other city officials had stopped by since Monday, when Ald. George Cardenas toured the block with the Chicago Fire Department.

“We, the community, Little Village — we’ve been feeding the kids, everyday,” Enriquez said. “We’re out here supporting the family and making it happen.”

Contributing: Frank Main, Mitch Dudek, Carlos Ballesteros, Mitchell Armentrout

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