Chicago High-Rise Fire Kills Two, Injures One

Jan. 23--Jay Fizer knew he was in trouble as he and several other residents descended the stairs of a condominium building Tuesday morning in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood to escape a fire.

A "big old wind of smoke just came out of nowhere" and smacked him and a few other residents as soon as they got about halfway down the stairs, said Fizer, 20, who lives on the 10th floor of the 16-story building in the 6700 block of South Shore Drive.

But they made it to the first-floor exit.

"We did it on our own," Fizer said. "No help. Just God."

Two other residents didn't make it out of the blaze. The men died after they suffered full cardiac arrest, apparently from breathing in smoke, Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. A third resident also had a heart attack, but she survived.

One of the men was in his 30s and the other was in his 40s, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office. The first man was pronounced dead at 9:45 a.m. at the University of Chicago Medical Center and the other died later at Jackson Park Hospital, officials said.

The medical examiner's office said it would release their names after an autopsy Wednesday.

The men were found on the seventh floor and the woman was found in the building's lobby, Langford said. Paramedics were able to revive her with CPR and took her to the University of Chicago Medical Center, Langford said.

A firefighter suffered minor injuries, officials said.

The fire broke out about 8:40 a.m. and was quickly deemed an extra-alarm fire with a call for at least 10 ambulances, officials said. Firefighters on one ladder battled the blaze on the seventh floor while firefighters on another tried to reach residents on balconies on the other side of the building.

Langford said the fire might have started in the bedroom of an apartment on the seventh floor. The blaze spread to an apartment on the eighth floor, he said. It was under control by 9:25 a.m.

Edward Parks, 48, said he was sleeping in his 11th-floor apartment when the fire alarm went off. Parks said he gathered the warmest clothes he could find and joined other residents in the hall.

"It was real cloudy in the halls when I went out to see what was happening," Parks said, his mustache covered with ice. "There was a fireman in the hall. It was an orderly exit."

In on-site interviews with local media outlets, fire officials urged residents to stay in their units. But not every resident got the message, and some started descending the stairs.

The building is one of hundreds of Chicago high-rises built before 1975 and does not have a fire sprinkler system or internal communication system. A 2004 ordinance required building owners to file a detailed report about how they plan to bring older high-rises up to speed with modern safety standards by Jan. 1, 2012. The City Council later extended that deadline to Jan. 1, 2015.

First Properties, which manages the building, filed its report in May 2010 and shortly thereafter got the go-ahead from the Chicago Department of Buildings to begin its fire safety upgrades. But First Properties had not started the necessary work as of last summer, according to a disclosure statement it sent the city.

On Tuesday evening, the firm did not have any update on its progress.

"Right now, what we're focusing on is getting people back in their homes," said Michael Rutkowski, owner of First Properties.

In a news release, Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, said the deadly fire could have been prevented if the city had stuck with its 2012 deadline and not given high-rise owners extra time to update their buildings.

"Fire sprinklers would have controlled it or put it out on the spot, and residents would not be left out in the cold," he said.

Standing in nearly subzero temperatures Tuesday morning, Fizer said it was the "worst time for this to happen." Some residents were stranded outside for a few hours as they waited to return to their units.

For others, the fire was a minor inconvenience. Cornell Graham, 24, said he sat with a few other people in the building's exercise room for about an hour and a half while firefighters battled the blaze.

"It could have been way worse," said Graham, who lives on the 12th floor. "They got it under control quickly."

Tribune reporter Carlos Sadovi contributed.

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