Four sisters younger than 7 and their mother died in a house fire Wednesday morning in suburban Des Plaines.
The fire broke out in a two-story duplex before 10:30 a.m. in the 700 block of Oakton Street, Des Plaines Fire Chief Daniel Anderson told reporters at the scene.
“This is a terrible day, a tragic day, it’s a sad day for Des Plaines,” Anderson said. “I've been doing this for 30 some-odd years and this is by far my worst day.”
The sisters were identified as Grace Espinosa, 1, Allizon V. Espinosa, 3, Genesis A. Espinosa, 5, and Renata P. Espinosa, 6, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. The children were taken to Lutheran General Hospital and pronounced dead, while their mother, Cythaly Zamodio, 25, died at the scene.
Autopsies by the medical examiner’s office ruled their deaths an accident, saying they died of thermal and inhalation injuries from the fire.
Their father was at work at the time of the fire, a neighbor said.
Irma Serrato, a relative who lives next door, said the family is shocked and heartbroken.
“Everyone is crying, everyone is down; pain, what I see is helplessness and pain,” Serrato said in Spanish on Wednesday evening. “... It’s something that we still don’t believe. We still don’t know what happened, we don’t how it happened, but we are awaiting answers from the authorities.”
Earlier in the day, Pabel Marrero, who lives on the first floor of the duplex, fought back tears as he saw what started as a typical morning “with nothing out of the ordinary” turn into tragedy.
He awoke to the sound of the kids’ footsteps upstairs around 9:30 a.m. A little over a half-hour later, he said he detected a faint smell of “burnt plastic” and heard a loud banging on his door. A passerby alerted him to the smoke coming from the upstairs apartment and told Marrero he needed to leave the house. The man called 911 to report smoke coming from the second floor, where most of the victims were found, Anderson and Marrero said.
The blaze spread to three of four apartments in the duplex, sending other uninjured residents from the home. Anderson described the scene as “a very hectic, rapidly evolving situation.”
Marrero, 52, said it took only 15 minutes for the whole upstairs to be engulfed in smoke.
“It was bad. The amount of smoke, I’ve never seen something like that. And then when they opened up the back door, the fire starts coming out the window, I haven’t seen anything like that,” he said. “It was quick.”
Marrero said the family who lived on the second floor moved in about two years ago. He recalled the girls being energetic and happy. He said they would play with dolls and build forts in the backyard.
“The kids were always in the yard,” he said. “They always liked to be out here especially in the summer. In the summer, they would be out here all day long.”
The house was destroyed, with some of its white siding singed black. Debris could be seen hanging from the ceiling of the upstairs apartment before the broken second-story windows were boarded up.
“I went in and the house is ruined,” said Marrero, who added that officials “told us we cannot live there anymore.”
“The least damaged is my apartment, but it’s unlivable... I don’t know what I’m going to do right now. I’ve lived here for 12 years, I had no plans for moving.”
Marrero, a hiring manager, said he has family in Wheeling and near Midway Airport. He also has a sister in Michigan.
“Right now, it’s like, everything is gone pretty much. I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know where I’m going to go,” he said. “I have no plans, I have nothing. It is what it is. I’m going to have to take it a day at a time, an hour at a time to figure out what I’m going to do.”
A firefighter hurt his knee in the blaze and a police officer was cut, city officials said.
“This is a very sad day for the City of Des Plaines,” Des Plaines Mayor Matt Bogusz said in a statement. “This kind of tragedy touches the heart of every Des Plaines resident. The City and the Des Plaines community grieve with this family and offer our support in any way we can.”
Serrato said officials haven’t shared any information regarding the cause of the blaze, which Anderson said remains under investigation.
“The authorities haven’t told us anything, there is no answer right now,” Serrato said. “There are questions, but answers, there isn’t any.”