CALUMET CITY, Illinois (TAUT) — A fire at a condominium building in the southern suburb of Calumet City on Monday evening proved even more devastating than previously thought.
An 85-year-old woman died and several other people had to be rescued after the fire tore through the building.
The fire left 150 families homeless, according to Jaclyn Saucier, president of the Park of River Oaks Condo Association.
The fire started around 7 p.m. Monday on the second floor of the 312-unit condo complex at 200 Park Ave. in Calumet City. Winds pushed the flames up to the seventh floor, firefighters confirmed.
There was a massive response in the building, with several dozen fire engines at the scene and fire crews applying water to a burning unit in the seven-story building. Several people had to be rescued using ladder trucks.
Not only were firefighters battling intense winds, but the building has limited sprinklers, as it was built before those were needed.
The City of Calumet Fire Department confirmed Monday that a resident died after being injured on the seventh floor. The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the victim as 85-year-old Wilhelmina Williamson.
During the response, the fire was quickly upgraded to a three-alarm response for additional equipment and manpower – partly due to the intensity of the flames, and also because the building is part of a massive condominium association with a large cluster of seven-storey buildings.
Officials said a total of 80 people had been displaced. At least six people were taken to hospital with minor injuries, including three residents and three firefighters.
“I was outside last night and saw the firefighters breaking the windows; the families that were affected, by the way they were crying and how it affected them, because they lost everything in that fire,” said declared the mayor of Calumet. Thaddeus Jones, who is also an Illinois State Representative.
TAUT 2’s Dana Kozlov spoke to a resident who got out safely early on when the smoke detectors started going off. She said she understands the fire could have started with someone barbecuing at the back of 200 Park Ave.
The resident said there may have been some kind of conflagration or propane explosion and the back of the building had just ignited. Officials said it was a wind-driven fire.
“We went down the stairs and went to the back, and we saw one floor just on fire — just on fire,” Shaunessye Curry said. “My heart started pounding, because the embers from the flames were blowing. The wind was much stronger than it is now. The embers were blowing and they actually started to pick up other nearby units .”
A day later, scores of people returned to collect their belongings on Tuesday – and saw even more devastation inside.
“It felt like something out of a movie – like a horror movie,” Shanekqua Williamson said.
It was so amazing that Williamson had to pull out his phone and record.
“There are puddles everywhere. It’s dark. It looked abandoned,” she said. “Everything is burned. It still smells of fire up there.”
Williamson and her grandmother lived on the fourth floor of Building 200 in Park of River Oaks. Now they are homeless – along with dozens of others.
Also left homeless was a woman who wanted to be called Mrs. Jones. She escaped from inside her fifth-floor unit when this fire started on Memorial Day night.
“Everything in my unit is destroyed,” Ms Jones said.
She was one of the first to pull a fire alarm after seeing flames ignite on the balcony of a condo below her on the second floor.
“He started knocking on doors – ‘Get out, get out, there’s a fire!’ and that’s all I have,” Ms Jones said.
But she has her life.
The deceased woman, Wilhelmina Williamson, lived on the seventh floor and was killed as the wind threw flames upwards.
Most of the residents we spoke to did not know Ms. Williamson, but are still suffering.
“There’s not a lot of interaction, except at holiday parties and things like that, but we’re just going about our business,” Bernice Everhart said.
The cause of the fire is currently under investigation, but authorities believe it was accidental.
“They said someone was barbecuing on the second floor, and the propane tank burst and exploded,” Curry said Monday night.
“Residents have told us, and we are looking at all avenues of investigation into the fire. Again, the investigation is still ongoing,” Calumet Fire Chief Glenn Bachert said.
Officials said most units on the seventh floor were completely uninhabitable after the fire.
Like many residents, Everhart is staying in a hotel at the moment – trying to come to terms with insurance on what the next few days, months or even years will be like.
“I have to rent somewhere,” she said. “The fireman who went upstairs says it will take a few years to fix.”
Everhart has lived in the building since 1994 and called Park of River Oaks “the perfect place to live” with a golf course. She also called the destruction caused by the fire “devastating to see”.
The American Red Cross said it is providing food, shelter and clothing to anyone in the building who needs it. They also help people get their prescriptions filled if needed. The Red Cross said Tuesday morning it had provided assistance to around 50 to 75 people.
Anyone who lived in the building and needs Red Cross assistance can call 877-597-0747.