Oak Street Fire Puts Hundreds out of Their Homes

Some elderly residents too sick to leave

Sunday, Aug 1, 2010  |  Updated 1:33 PM CDT
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An electrical fire breaks out in the middle of the night at 200-unit high rise downtown, hospitalizing two and putting hundreds of residents out on the street.

An electrical fire breaks out in the middle of the night at 200-unit high rise downtown, hospitalizing two and putting hundreds of residents out on the street.

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Two women were hospitalized, hundreds were left on the streets, and others with physical ailments were tended to inside their homes following an extra-alarm electrical fire Sunday at a 200-unit downtown high-rise that houses elderly and disabled residents as well as college students.

Emergency crews responded to the report of a fire about 12:15 a.m. at the 14-story building at 171 W. Oak St., according to Fire Media Affairs Chief Kevin MacGregor, who said the blaze was upgraded to a 4-11 alarm fire about 1 a.m. An EMS Plan 1 -- which automatically sends five ambulances to the scene -- was also called.

The flames were extinguished at 1:50 a.m. with at least 18 fire trucks and 120 firefighters and paramedics at the scene, MacGregor said. Initial reports indicated the fire began in several electrical vaults.
 
The 200-unit River North neighborhood building called Jenkins Hall is used for graduate and female undergraduates and married students.

It is also Section 8 housing for elderly, disabled and low income residents, officials said.

A thick cloud of smoke hung in the air early Sunday as fire crews attempted to ventilate the building and searched the building for other residents, careful not to kick in doors in case delicate residents were still inside, officials said on scene.

Some residents in wheel chairs, canes or walkers were escorted out of the building, although fire officials are not calling it a rescue.

An 80 year-old woman suffering from exhaustion after climbing down multiple flights of stairs and an 85-year-old woman with shortness of breath were taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in fair condition, MacGregor said. No other injuries had been reported as of 2:15 a.m.

Liz Essex, 84, heard the alarms and, with a bad back and knees and usually on using a walker, escaped through a side stairwell from her 10th floor apartment, she said.

“Me and a lot of other people came downstairs holding onto the railing,” Essex said.

“Some are too sick to get out.” Essex said.

Those residents, MacGregor said, and many others were asked to stay in their apartments and firefighters and paramedics are on every floor to ensure their safety.

ComEd was notified of the incident about 12:30 a.m. by fire officials and dispatched two workers to assist emergency crews, according to ComEd spokeswoman Laura Duda, who said the cause of the fire was “not ComEd-related.”

Power to the building was maintained throughout the fire to allow emergency crews access to the elevators, Duda said.

Austin Wilson, a senior communications major at Moody Bible Institute, and his wife Kendall, both 22, live on the 14th floor of the building and were in their apartment when they said they smelled smoke, and then heard an alarm.

The couple ran down 14 flights of stairs with Kendall still clad in pajama pants.

Joan Forest Mage, 53, who lives on the 12th floor of Jenkins Hall was not home at the time of the fire.  She said she came home to find emergency crews blocking off the building.

Residents were being directed to go inside a Moody Bible Institute gym across the street, Mage said.

Fire crews used Ansul extinguishers, which is a dry chemical to combat electrical fires, MacGregor said.

Traffic was rerouted to accommodate the emergency response.
 

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