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2 die in NW Side fire blamed on smoking materials

Robert Szalacha, 85, and his wife, Carol Szalacha, 78, were found dead inside their home Thursday nigh in the 4200 block of North Kildare Avenue.

Robert and Carol Szalacha
Robert and Carol Szalacha
Provided

Twelve hours after a fire killed Carol and Robert Szalacha in their Old Irving Park home, a man silently stepped to the edge of the couple’s front lawn.

The grass was beaten down and muddy, telltale signs of the 80 or so Chicago Fire Department personnel who responded to the blaze at 4216 N. Kildare Ave. Thursday night.

The man knelt to ground and placed two red roses on the Szachalas’ lawn before turning and walking away.

For Carol Szalacha, 78, flowers were serious business.

For more than 20 years, she was a steady figure in the Irving Park Garden Club, serving as the group’s president from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2008 to 2009.

She was especially fond of her hostas.

“I’ve got at least 25 or 30 different kinds,” she said in the garden club’s April newsletter. “I love their versatility and their coloring.”

Relatives and neighbors of Robert and Carol Szalacha stand outside the couples’ home in the 4200 block of North Kildare Avenue Friday morning.
Sam Charles/ Sun-Times

Their home, built in the early 1890s, had been in the family since 1948, according to the Irving Park Historical Society. By Friday morning, it was a husk of its former self.

CFD officials said Friday that “careless use of smoking materials” was likely the cause of the blaze.

A neighbor called 911 to report the fire about 9:20 p.m. and, within minutes, the fire had torn through much of the house, according to CFD spokesman Larry Langford.

The fire started on the first floor and was likely accelerated by an oxygen tank that was nearby, Langford said. The heat was so intense it melted the siding on the home directly north of the Szalachas’.

Autopsies performed by the Cook County medical examiner’s office Friday found Carol Szalacha died of burns as well as smoke and soot inhalation. Her husband, 85-year-old Robert Szalacha, died of carbon monoxide toxicity and burns.

Dozens of passersby stopped Friday to look at the heavily damaged two-story home as relatives of the Szalachas spoke with a few firefighters still at the scene. They declined to speak with reporters.

One neighbor, who declined to give her name, said the Szalachas had lived in the home for most of their lives.

Every year, the neighbor said, the garden club would organize a walk in the neighborhood to show off residents’ floral displays.

“This would always be the end of the tour, over here, to see her master garden,” the neighbor said.

CFD Deputy District Chief Brian McKermitt told reporters Thursday night that crews “encountered heavy fire on the first floor” after receiving reports the couple was trapped. While inside, the blaze “started intensifying,” and the firefighters retreated outside.

Once the fire was brought under control, a search was conducted, and the bodies were discovered, McKermitt said.

Langford said the Szalachas are the 20th and 21st people to die in house fires in Chicago this year. In all of 2019, Langford said, 26 people died in house fires across the city.

As is the case after every fatal blaze, firefighters canvassed the immediate area to pass out smoke detectors to neighbors Friday.