After 602 people were killed in a fire at the Iroquois Theater in 1903, Chicago’s fire code for theaters was revamped.
The most important change: All exit doors now must swing outward.
After 92 children and three nuns were killed in a fire at Our Lady of the Angels school in 1958, Chicago’s fire code for schools was revamped.
The most important change: More frequent fire drills now are mandatory at all schools.
What will be the legacy of another tragedy now? What “good,” to use a jarring word, will come of the death of 10 children in a fire on Sunday in Little Village?
What will our city learn, and what will our city do, so that other children may be made safer?
The answer begins with a series of questions that require answers. The fires at the Iroquois Theater and Our Lady of Angels school were followed by exhaustive investigations that showed no fear or favor.
The only indisputable victims, Chicago understood, were those who had died. All others had to answer for their actions. And so it is now.
Among the questions that require answers are these:
- Where were the adults? Of the 10 children who died in the early morning fire at 2224 S. Sacramento Ave., the oldest was just 16. Nine were brothers or sisters or first-cousins, and one was a family friend. The youngest victim was 3 months old.
- Investigators found a smoke detector in the wreckage. A lawyer for the landlord, Merced Gutierrez, said Gutierrez was careful to install smoke detectors in his buildings because he previously had been cited by the city for not doing so. When was this smoke detector installed?
- Fire inspectors say the smoke detector did not have a working battery. Why not?
- Were the prior building inspections done properly?
- What was the cause of the fire? At first, there was speculation that it was sparked by smoking materials, fireworks on a porch or even arson. Now investigators are analyzing an “electrical device” of some sort. What is the electrical device?
- What was the cause of death for each child? Inspectors say the children were found all around a room, not crowded near doors or in closets. This might suggest the children died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- What interactions, in detail, did the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services have with the children and their families? One of the mothers, who lost five children, reportedly had been investigated by the department for 21 complaints since 2004. Two of those complaints, including a case in which the mother involved a 16-year-old daughter and a 7-month-old relative in a shoplifting scheme, were confirmed.
- What services did DCFS offer to the children and their families? What services were accepted? Who made contact with the family, made the assessments and provided services — DCFS directly or a private contractor?
- Charles Golbert, the acting Cook County Public Guardian, told the Sun-Times that the extraordinary number of DCFS complaints about the one family, even if most of the complaints were deemed “unfounded,” should have prompted DCFS to take more aggressive action, including bringing cases to court. How valid is that criticism?
- Most of the children were school-age. Did local school districts — either the Chicago Public Schools or in the suburbs — notice anything? Were there red flags? Was there any communication among the schools, DCFS and police agencies about these children and their families?
- Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said the building where the fire occurred was a regular source of neighborhood complaints about noise and illegal activity. Was that a factor in the fire, or in why there were no adults present?
All the social workers, building inspectors, cops, teachers and judges in the world can’t protect every unlucky child.
But we owe it to every child — and to the 10 who died in Little Village — to try.
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