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City Hall lowers the boom on owner of building where 10 kids died in fire

A memorial outside a house where 10 children between 3 months and 16 years old were killed early Sunday when a fire broke out in the second-story of a coach house in the 2200 block of South Sacramento Avenue. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration on Friday threw the book at the owner of a Little Village building where 10 children died in a fire that was Chicago’s most deadly for children since the Our Lady of Angels fire in 1958.

The children — who were between 3 months and 16 years old — died in the rear coach house of a building at 2224 S. Sacramento owned by Merced Gutierrez.

A blitzkrieg investigation by the Chicago Department of Buildings’ Strategic Task Force found 38 violations in the front building, including missing or defective smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, defective light fixtures, and armored cable, electrical wiring and plumbing installed without permits.

Other violations included junk and debris obstructing exits; a basement container filled with gas; porch and exterior door defects; evidence of rodent and roach infestation; an attic full of junk and debris that posed a fire hazard; and improper clearance for electrical panels.

Six more violations were found during a separate inspection of the rear coach house where the children died.

Based on those violations, City Hall is seeking to secure the rear building, post a watchman on the premises between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., and “repair or wreck” it so it does not pose a threat to neighboring residents.

Raul Serrato, an attorney representing Gutierrez, but not on the building code violations, questioned the timing of the city’s crackdown.

“I guess they want to cover their bases. They don’t want to be seen as maybe that they had a hand in it [by] not aggressively enforcing whatever they needed to enforce against my client,” Serrato said.

“The place is already burnt. There was a fire. It’s unoccupied. Now you come in and make these citations? It’s totally unfair to my client.”

On the same day the tenth child died, Serrato told the Chicago Sun-Times that Gutierrez tried to evict Yolanda Ayala, who lost several of her children in the fire, for refusing to pay rent.

On Friday, Serrato disclosed that there was more to it than that.

“The reason why [my client] was trying to evict was because he was getting complaints from the alderman. The alderman had summoned him for what was alleged to be drug sales and gang activity at the property, so my client was then advised that he needed to abate the problem. The way to do that was to evict those tenants,” Serrato said.

Building Department spokesman Gregg Cunningham denied that going after Gutierrez now was the department’s way of covering itself for a failure to inspect more closely before the children died. Cunningham said that a more thorough inspection wasn’t possible before the fire.

“This is when inspectors were able to gain full access to the property,” he said. “In prior visits, there in response to 311 complaints, they were given partial access or, in some cases, no entry to parts of the building.

“When the inspectors come out there, they can only get access to the areas they’re given access to from a person on site. If they can’t gain entrance or access to certain parts of the building, they can’t inspect it.”

Given the history of code violations in the building where the fatal fire occurred, Emanuel was asked this week if he questions whether City Hall 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.”

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) has acknowledged that his staff had been working with Gutierrez “for years” to correct a host of violations.

On Friday, Cardenas was asked whether the laundry list of violations uncovered by the Strategic Task Force after the fact were proof that City Hall could have done more to prevent the fire.

“I looked at the 311 [calls]. They said they did not have access to the building. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Monday morning quarterbacking is easy. But if you don’t have access to the building and nobody is really on the other end pushing this to an emergency and saying, ‘You need to get out here. I’m calling the police to get access,’ it makes it more difficult,” Cardenas said.

“I don’t think they dropped the ball. A better job could have been done of trying to get access. That I give you. But you try to manage this the best way you can. It’s a tragedy. No doubt about it. I’m heartbroken. You could always improve the process.”

The last inspection prior to this week occurred June 8 in response to a tenant complaint. The building was cited for two electrical violations — one for grounding in the front of the building and one for an illegal electrical cord going from the front building to the coach house. A court date was set for Sept. 24.

After the June 8 inspection, City Hall determined that the electrical violations were not serious enough to warrant vacating the building. Other contributing factors would have had to have been present to warrant vacating the building, official said.

MORE ABOUT THE LITTLE VILLAGE FIRE

All 10 Little Village victims slept through fire — is that unusual?

Memorial services set for 6 Little Village fire victims

DCFS drops bombshell as it investigates Little Village fire deaths

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

Child death toll in Little Village fire matches highest in city since 1958

‘Everyone knew these kids’: Family, friends mourn Little Village fire victims

Eight children dead in Little Village blaze: ‘God, take them to heaven’