Eight children dead in Little Village blaze: ‘God, take them to heaven’
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Rosario Vergara was getting home from a family reunion early Sunday when her daughter noticed smoke coming from the rear of an apartment in the Little Village neighborhood.
“She says ‘there’s a lot of smoke’ and I looked and it was bad,” Vergara said.
The resulting blaze claimed the lives of eight children — all related to each other, and ranging in age from 3 months to 16 years old, according to family members who spoke with the Sun-Times.
Two more boys were rushed to Stroger Hospital, where they were in “very critical” condition, according to Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Merritt. Family members said they were 13 and 16 years old.
The fire broke out about 4 a.m. at a small residential building located between a garage and a three-story greystone apartment building in the 2200 block of South Sacramento Avenue, according to Chicago Fire Media Affairs and Chicago police.
All of those killed were found on the second floor of the rear building, said Merritt, who noted that investigators had found no working smoke detectors in the rear building.
Fire officials said the cause of the fire, which was put out by 5:10 a.m., was still under investigation Sunday evening. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were also lending assistance to investigators.
A source close to the investigation told the Sun-Times that investigators found smoking materials and bottle rockets on a porch where the fire originated, but it wasn’t known if they sparked the blaze.
Fire officials credited Vergara’s quick response with saving others who lived nearby.
“We have not had this in many, many, many years — this amount of fatalities and injuries on one location,” Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said. “So the female who did that saved a lot of lives.”
Jesse Cobos, a friend of the family who lives in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, led a group prayer before a set of votive and jar candles where the names of those lost in the fire were written in marker.
“Father, God, take them to heaven,” Cobos said.
About 11 a.m., Cobos helped a man add the names of the children to a wooden cross that had been brought to the scene. He held his head in his hands and sobbed as he gave the six names for the cross: Giovanni, Gialanni, Alanni, Ariel, Xavier and Cesar.
“Let’s leave some room so we can write the others on later if that happens,” he said. “These are just the ones we know for now.”
Less than an hour later, they had added the name “Victor” to the cross.
“They were all cousins, but they were more like brothers and sisters,” said Grace Garcia, a friend of the family who was comforting the children’s grandmother.
A candlelight vigil was held Sunday night. By 8:30 p.m., a crowd had already gathered in the middle of Sacramento. Candles flickered below a set of balloons spelling the victims’ names. The balloons had been decorated with photos. Some people hugged. Others paid their respects silently. A sob eventually rose above the crowd. Nearby, children innocently played in the water from an open fire hydrant.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed all eight deaths, but had not released their identifies as of Sunday evening.
After calling 911 to report the fire, Vergara, 34, ran to the front of the building and began knocking on apartment doors. When she tried to walk through a gangway to get to the rear of the building, plumes of smoke and heat from the flames turned her back.
“I couldn’t describe it. You couldn’t see and it was hard to breathe,” Vergara said. “You could feel this heat, this intense heat.
“I knew there were kids, cause we would see them all out playing.”
Ulysses Carrillo, 41, was sleeping on his couch in the first-floor apartment in the graystone building when he heard Vergara banging on his door.
“I headed to the back [of the building] because I knew there were kids in there, but the heat was too much,” Carrillo said. “It went up really fast.”
Lucy Avila, 35, who lives on the buildings’s third floor, said she wouldn’t have woken up if someone didn’t come for her.
“We had the fans and the air [conditioning] on and I couldn’t heard anyone knocking,” Avila said. “Then [Carrillo] banged on the door. I just grabbed my two little ones and my 15-year-old and we got out.”
A firefighter who was also injured in the blaze was taken to a hospital in good condition, the fire department said.
The building where the fire started sits between a three-story apartment building and a garage on the same lot, the fire department said. The first floor of the coach house had been vacant and was boarded up. The configuration of the buildings is a relic of the city’s past and would no longer be permitted.
The fire ultimately spread to the rear of the apartment building on the same lot and consumed the enclosed staircase of another building next door, and two other buildings nearby sustained damage; the heat of the flames melted the vinyl siding, the fire department said.
Video showed smoke coming from windows of the apartment building’s stone facade, with flames engulfing the back. Officers helped push a stretcher toward an ambulance while a paramedic performed CPR. One woman lay on the street crying while someone tried to comfort her.
The blaze affected nine units and several families, according to the American Red Cross, which had volunteers on the scene providing food, housing and health services.
Ald. George Cardenas (12th) visited the scene Sunday morning.
“It’s a massive tragedy,” Cardenas said, “especially in a neighborhood that struggles.”
Contributing: David Struett, Tom Schuba