The residential high-rise in Kenwood where an extra alarm fire occurred Wednesday morning, killing one person, has a history of code violations and building inspection failures, city records show. It’s been cited for fire-related code violations at least 11 times since October 2021, according to Department of Buildings records.
The Chicago Fire Department said it took 300 firefighters and over 80 pieces of equipment to put out the blaze at 4850 S. Lake Park Ave. after they had responded to reports of smoke in the high-rise shortly after 10 a.m. Flames engulfed a unit on the 15th floor of the building and spread vertically to upper floors, officials said.
One person died, and six other people were transported to hospitals in good condition, according to officials. Another person was taken to a hospital in serious-to-critical condition and a firefighter suffered an orthopedic injury, according to fire officials and Ald. Sophia King, in whose 4th Ward the building is located. Over 30 building residents refused treatment.
“They did an outstanding job because that fire did not go horizontally,” Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “They did everything they could to put that fire out and they were here for a long time doing it.”
According to Department of Building records, the 25-story building, which was built in 1970, was informed at least four times in 2022 to “provide for an annual fire alarm/voice communication system test,” after failing building inspections. Other citations referred to missing fire tags on doors and a defective fire pump.
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said that, as far as the department knows, “both of those systems,” the communications system and the fire pump, “worked well today.” Firefighters used the building’s communication system to alert residents to the fire. Most residents were able to remain in their units safely until the fire was put out, King said.
Only 267 of the building’s 298 units were occupied at the time of the fire, Nance-Holt said.
In 2022, city records show that the high-rise failed multiple inspections, including one conducted by the Fire Prevention Bureau on Dec. 1, 2022, when the building was cited for issues in its fire system.
Violations from Nov. 7, 2022 — which included violations for missing interior trash door tags, for the exterior masonry and for failing to file the required high-rise exterior wall report — were referred to the Department of Law, which filed an enforcement action in the Circuit Court of Cook County. The case is scheduled to be heard Feb. 2.
On Oct. 27, 2021, the inspection required the building to repair and maintain the automatic sprinkler system.
“The Department of Buildings (DOB) takes public safety and quality of life issues very seriously,” according to an emailed statement by a DOB spokesman. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of the resident who passed away, the residents and firefighter that sustained injuries, and all those impacted by today’s tragic fire at 4850 S. Lake Park Avenue.”
At 1 p.m. Wednesday, countless emergency vehicles lined up on South Lake Park Avenue and alarms faintly blared from the building as smoke continued to billow. Approximately 10 floors were visibly affected, and debris occasionally fell. Firefighters could be seen from below working the scene.
King hugged Jauntanne Mayes as she cried after finding out the person who died in Wednesday’s high-rise fire in the Kenwood neighborhood was her close family friend, a retired schoolteacher who Mayes remembered as “sweet,” “fun-loving” and “very generous.”
Mayes said she learned of the fire from the Citizen app and went to the building to check on her family friend because she couldn’t get down the stairs by herself. But she wasn’t allowed to go in, so she left, only to learn from the news that an elderly woman had died from smoke inhalation on the 15th floor. At that point, she’d been trying to call her family friend to no avail.
”She will be missed by a lot of people, anybody that knew her,” Mayes said. “She’d tell you like it is, but it was all done in love.”
On Wednesday afternoon, displaced residents — which included residents from the east side of the building — were on the second floor with the Red Cross, which was working with them to find a temporary place, King told the Tribune. The Salvation Army provided residents with hot chicken biscuit sandwich meals, as well as emotional and spiritual support.
Nance-Holt said at the news conference that fire officials didn’t know whether smoke detectors went off. The smoke detectors in the units are battery-operated, whereas the ones in the hallways are hardwired, she said. Langford told the Tribune the person from the building who called 911 did not get alerted by a fire alarm, but by the smoke.
Nance-Holt was unable to confirm whether the sprinkler system was activated.
Fire officials continue to investigate the cause of the fire. DOB inspectors were on the scene Wednesday and will work with the Fire Department in its investigation and assessment of the damage.
Chicago Tribune’s Richard Requena and Deanese Williams-Harris contributed.