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Lawyer: City, state agencies failed 10 kids who died in Little Village fire 1 year ago

In a new lawsuit, a sibling of 5 of the kids who died is suing the city, building owners and the mom who was allegedly in charge but absent the morning of the fire.

Crosses, balloons, and photos were part of a memorial for children who died in a fire that broke out in a building behind this three-story greystone apartment building in Little Village. Two teens also were injured in the fire in the 2200 block of South S
Crosses, balloons, and photos were part of a memorial for children who died in a fire that broke out in a building behind this three-story greystone apartment building in Little Village.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The city and state is ultimately responsible for failing 10 children who died in a fire one year ago in the Little Village neighborhood, according to a lawyer representing a sibling of five of the kids who died.

Amber Ayala, 20, is suing the city, building owners and Priscilla Cobos, the mom who was allegedly in charge but absent in the early morning of Aug. 26, 2018, when the deadly fire broke out in the rear apartment building at 2224 S. Sacramento Ave., according to a lawsuit filed last week in Cook County Circuit Court.

No adults were present that morning, and no working smoke detectors were found, authorities have said. The building had extension cords running from the main house to the rear unit, according to the lawsuit.

Two mothers, Cobos and Yolanda Ayala, are named in two separate lawsuits. In the suits, each mother is alleged to have left the other mother in charge of all 10 children.

Amber Ayala’s lawyer alleges that Cobos was negligent but that the city is truly responsible for the tragedy.

“My problem with blaming the mothers, quite frankly, is that I’m not really sure it would make a difference if a parent was there or not. We would probably just have another victim,” Ayala’s attorney, Colin J. O’Malley, said.

He said the fire started in the early morning hours, and that most of the children were probably asphyxiated before they could wake up.

“So focusing on the two women — whether it was Priscilla or Yolanda — is a little bit of a red herring, and it kind of removes the focus from all of the adults in these children’s lives that let them down,” he said.

The suit alleges that the city was aware of numerous code violations in the building but allowed the landlord to continue renting it.

“You’ve got DCFS going there checking on these people. You have different city entities that have shown up complaining about the condition of the building. You have landlords and you have the city,” O’Malley said.

“So when everybody talks about the two mothers, it’s taking the spotlight away from where the investigation needs to go, which is, ‘How did we end up in this position in the first place?’” he said.

A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department said they do not comment on pending suits.

O’Malley questioned how the city allowed the landlord to rent the building that allegedly had no working smoke or carbon monoxide detectors and wasn’t basically habitable.

“I met with these women, I met with them all,” O’Malley said. “There is no happy ending to this story. But the one thing all the family members are interested in is answers to the investigation. They want facts to come out.”

An investigation by the Chicago Fire Department ruled that the fire started from “open flame ignition to available combustibles,” according to department spokesman Larry Langford.

The investigation did not rule out “such actions as improper use of smoking material, use of fireworks, youth playing with matches/fire/lighter, or careless discarding of smoking material,” Langford wrote in an email.

The 10 children who died ranged in age from 3 months to 16 years old, and included Cesar Contreras, Nathan Contreras, Xavier Contreras, Amayah Almaraz and Ariel Garcia.

Their sister, Amber Ayala, was appointed administrator of the estates Aug. 15 after her mother, Yolanda Ayala, failed to qualify, according to O’Malley. Amber Ayala is also the administrator of estate of her cousin, Adrian Hernandez, who also died in the fire.

The plaintiff’s mother, Yolanda Ayala, was previously cited by DCFS at least 21 times — all but one of which was ruled unfounded — and was allegedly absent from the apartment in the morning of the fire.

Yolanda Ayala is the defendant of another pending lawsuit, filed by Cobos. Cobos, who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in March, claimed that Yolanda Ayala was left in charge of the children. Cobos lost three children in the fire: Giovanni Ayala, Gialanni Ayala and Alanni Ayala.

Lawyers representing Cobos did not respond to a request for comment.