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Officials, lawyers for landlord and 10 dead children visit site of deadly fire

A fire in this second-floor apartment killed 10 children in Little Village. The building owner intends to tear it down, his attorney said Thursday. | Sun-Times photo

More than a dozen people including lawyers, insurance representatives and private fire investigators gathered Friday morning to survey the damage to the Little Village apartment building where 10 children died.

“Our goal today was to assess the structural integrity of the property,” said Anthony Peraica, an attorney for building owner Merced Gutierrez and a former Cook County commissioner. “There is no need for demolition. The property will be preserved. Then we will do the internal inspection.”

Gutierrez, 80, was in court Thursday for a hearing regarding more than 40 building-code violations discovered on his property in city inspections after the Aug. 26 fire. He was ordered to prevent anyone from occupying the building.

Gutierrez asked for permission to inspect the property and preserve evidence, saying in a court filing that he expects a wrongful-death lawsuit will be filed against him. The court agreed to grant his insurance company, State Farm, access to the property Friday.

A city task force inspected the property after the blaze and found six violations in the rear coach house where the children were killed. Another 38 violations were discovered in a front building, including missing or defective smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and defective light fixtures.

Peraica said he will seek to have all of the code violations dismissed.

“The city is trying to now do a show of force in light of the tragic death of these 10 individuals,” he said.

Angelo Cordoba, a public safety officer for the Chicago Fire Department, speaks to a crowd Friday morning at a smoke detector giveaway at a fire station in Little Village. | Sun-Times photo.

The city will conduct another inspection on Dec. 4. The next hearing on the code violations is set for Dec. 6.

Peraica said he visited the scene of the fire at 2224 S. Sacramento on Friday morning along with attorneys for the families of the dead children, State Farm officials and “a number of fire origination investigators.”

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. City fire officials initially said they found no smoke detectors in the unit where the blaze occurred. Later, they said they found a smoke detector without a working battery.

Peraica said he was told adults living in the unit where the children were killed disabled the smoke detectors “because they were making a high-pitched sound.”

Also Friday morning, the Chicago Fire Department held a smoke detector giveaway at a firehouse in Little Village. Dozens of people showed up, many prompted by the fatal blaze last month.

First Deputy Fire Cmsr. Richard Ford II urged them to check their smoke detectors once a week to ensure a similar tragedy doesn’t happen again. He also called on landlords to provide working smoke detectors to  tenants.

“It is not only the law, but what I feel is a moral obligation,” he said.

Fire safety officers John Berrera [left], Angelo Cordoba and Minnie Tenort at a smoke-detector giveaway Friday in Little Village. | Sun-Times photo.

“If you are a renter and your landlord does not live up to their lawful duty in providing a smoke detector, I implore you to report that landlord to the city of Chicago Department of Buildings by calling 311 and don’t waste another moment before purchasing one yourself.”

Deputy District Chief Walter Schroeder added that residents who can’t afford it can get one free by calling 311 or going to their alderman’s office. According to Schroeder, more than half of the buildings that have caught fire in Chicago this year didn’t have a working smoke detector.

Cindy Gonzalez, who lives in Little Village and is a mother of four, including a 10-month-old, said news of the fire was jarring.

“We haven’t replaced our smoke detectors in about six years,” she said. “I’m here because I don’t want what happened on Sacramento to happen to us.”