‘Nobody had been able to reach her.’ Frantic search as one killed, several hurt in extra-alarm fire in Kenwood high-rise

The person who died had lived in an apartment on the 15th floor where the fire is believed to have started, according to Ald. Sophia King (4th).

SHARE ‘Nobody had been able to reach her.’ Frantic search as one killed, several hurt in extra-alarm fire in Kenwood high-rise
Chicago Fire Department firefighters work to extinguish a fire that broke out in an apartment on the 15th floor and climbed nine floors in a high-rise building Wednesday in the 4800 block of South Lake Park Avenue in Kenwood on the South Side.

Chicago Fire Department firefighters work to extinguish a fire that broke out in an apartment on the 15th floor and climbed nine floors in a high-rise building Wednesday in the 4800 block of South Lake Park Avenue in Kenwood on the South Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Jauntanne Mayes rushed to the burning high-rise in Kenwood Wednesday morning, hoping she could help an elderly retired teacher she called her aunt because they were so close.

“I knew that she could not get down the stairs by herself, and unfortunately they wouldn’t let me up to go and check on her,” Mayes told reporters as smoke still rose from the upper floors of the apartment complex at 4850 S. Lake Park Ave. 

“Nobody had been able to reach her, and then I was just informed that she was a person who passed away,” Mayes said. “Just a really sweet, sweet person, really generous, she will be missed by a lot of people.”

The Cook County medical examiner’s office identified her as 81-year-old Ora Chiles.

Ald. Sophia King (4th) said Chiles had lived in an apartment on the 15th floor where the fire was believed to have started. Mayes said that’s where the retired teacher lived.

Eight other people were injured in the fire, which was raised to a 4-11 alarm as wind-whipped flames quickly spread upward along the outside walls and windows. One of the injured was a 70-year-old woman initially taken to the hospital in critical condition. 

A firefighter was hospitalized in good to serious condition with a minor orthopedic injury, according to Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt. 

The fire broke out just after 10 a.m. and eventually more than 300 firefighters and emergency responders were dispatched to the scene. “It was a fast-moving fire,” Deputy Fire Commissioner Marc Ferman said. “And it was tough just staying ahead of it.”

Nance-Holt said the fire “went up vertically and it lapped from floor to floor to floor, all the way up to 24 where my firefighters gained control of it.”

By noon, flames were no longer visible though firefighters continued to search the building. 

Barbara Joiner, a 69-year-old resident, stood outside the building with other neighbors as snow continued to fall. Joiner said she acts as a caretaker for another woman who lives in the portion of the building affected by the fire and was anxiously trying to reach her.

“Oh my God,” she said, remembering her reaction to seeing the flames once she got outside. “These flames are still rising.”

Adetunji Oyedele, 59, said he woke up to the sound of a fire alarm and immediately searched his apartment for flames. It was when he opened a window in his apartment that he noticed large clouds of smoke escaping from elsewhere in the building.

“It was a lot of smoke and I’m like, what is going on,” said Oyedele. “I just quickly threw on this jacket ‘cause I didn’t even know what to take.”

Oyedele said emergency responders were quick to respond to the fire. But a resident on the other side of the building disagreed.

“No one knocked on the doors, no one said anything, no one knew,” said Stephanie Lassiter, 57. “I texted my daughter who also lives in the building and said, ‘I think there’s a fire in the building’ and she said she didn’t think so.”

Lassiter said she heard a faint siren coming from the hallway and that it took awhile for residents to be told they needed to leave the building. “I had to knock on my neighbors doors to tell them to leave because no one knew. It was terrible,” she said.

More than 30 minutes after the fire broke out, residents in the building received an email alert from the leasing company asking them to stay indoors and wait for further instruction from the fire department, she said.

“This was ridiculous,” Lassiter said. “A lot of people in this building are old. Why the hell are they emailing 80-year-olds?”

Ferman, the deputy fire commissioner, said firefighters “got a list of people who were maybe physically challenged. We got to those units first. We prioritized those guys and then made announcements as we evaluated conditions.”

Many in the building were asked to remain in their apartments because of the “fire resistance construction” of the building, he said. “The doors are fire-rated doors to the apartment units. The stairways are enclosed, the hallways. It’s set up so you can remain in your unit and still be safe.”

Nance-Holt said fire crews used the complex’s communication system to alert residents. She said there are battery-operated smoke alarms in the apartments and hard-wired smoke alarms in the hallways, but she could not say whether they were working.

The building has failed seven inspections since Oct. 27, 2021, according to city records. On Nov. 7 last year, it was cited for having cracked masonry on exterior walls, not having fire tags on certain doors and for failing to have a required examination report of the building, according to records from the city Department of Buildings.

The last inspection, on Dec. 1, 2022, cited management for failing to provide an annual fire alarm test for the building, according to the records.

Contributing: Elvia Malagón; Associated Press 

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