Residents and officials are demanding answers after a beloved Christmas tree in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood burned down for the second year in a row.
On Monday, the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce called on Chicago police and fire officials to step up their investigations of the blaze, which occurred on Sunday at approximately 5 a.m. in the 5500 block of South King Drive.
The group says that it has surveillance footage that indicates that the fire may have been deliberately set, although authorities say that the fire remains under investigation and that no cause has been determined at this time.
The 30-foot artificial tree was officially lit on Saturday night in the community, a symbol of pride and joy in Washington Park.
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“They can see hope. They can see that our communities matter. That’s what it’s all about,” Donna Hampton-Smith, president of the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce, said.
Now, that tree has been destroyed, and Hampton-Smith says that this marks the third year in a row that the tree has suffered catastrophic damage.
She says that in 2019, the tree was run over by a vehicle, and the tree caught fire in 2020.
This time, surveillance cameras were rolling when the artificial tree went up in flames at approximately 5 a.m. Sunday. The fire rapidly engulfed the tree, and smoke billowed out from the burning tree, drifting across the street to a nearby gas station.
“Whatever we were trying to prevent from happening, happened,” gas station owner Mustafa Hammad said.
Hammad said that his cameras had recently been adjusted to face the Christmas tree after the incidents of the last two years, hoping that it would deter or catch any ill-intentioned individuals.
Even still, Chicago police had said initially that they weren’t looking into foul play, but they have now changed course, saying that the Office of the Fire Inspector has begun looking into the incident.
“The video speaks otherwise,” Hampton-Smith said. “I don’t believe that.”
Chamber officials say that a person is shown in the video walking from the gas station to the tree shortly before the tree’s lights went out, and that sparks were visible during that time.
“That person didn’t come all the way into the gas station. He crossed the street (and) he’s walking around that tree,” Hammad said.
Chicago police say they are aware of the video, and that the incident remains under investigation.
“It’s an attack on our community. You’re robbing people,” Hampton-Smith said.
In the meantime, the Chamber of Commerce says the city of Chicago is helping to replace the tree, and is hoping to complete the work sometime this weekend. Plans for additional security are still being worked out Monday evening.