Twelve-year-old David Pantoja returned to his lifelong home in Prospect Heights Friday to find it horribly transformed.
Accompanying his father, Rodrigo, to recover belongings from their fire-ravaged building at the River Trails condominium complex, David said he was overwhelmed by both the mess and the smell.
But the 15-minute visit to the second-floor unit where his parents have lived for more than 20 years resulted in garbage bags full of clothes, shoes, photos and documents.
Just about everything bore the mark of Wednesday’s fire that devastated three connected buildings and caused a fourth to remain temporarily evacuated, he said.
“You touched it and there was a lot of dust,” David said of his suddenly unfamiliar home.
What they recovered gives them a start for the next chapter of their lives, which is beginning in a hotel in Glenview.
Marcelino Hucko of Mount Prospect said her in-laws were not as lucky, having lived on the irrecoverable third floor in the unit just above where the fire started. But they returned to the complex Friday to help some second-floor neighbors and to find out if there was any additional information on when they might be able to look at their unit again.
These families were among the more than 70 households facing long-term displacement by Wednesday’s fire that spread rapidly once it reached the open space just below the buildings’ connected roofs.
Some residents arrived Friday armed with bigger boxes in hopes of recovering more items from their units, but city officials told them this part of the recovery effort was not intended to take long.
“Today is just for essential, necessary information,” Prospect Heights Building & Development Director Dan Peterson said.
Assisting with the recovery effort were employees of Servpro of Arlington Heights/Prospect Heights, a cleanup and restoration firm.
Company representative John Glynn provided residents with safety items such as rubber boots, hard hats, goggles and breathing masks. There also were bags filled with toothbrushes, toothpaste, razor blades, water bottles and children’s coloring books for displaced families.
Peterson said there may be an opportunity for residents who couldn’t make it back Friday afternoon to re-enter their units on Saturday. But that will be done through special arrangements with the complex’s management officer rather than at another generally set time, he said.
Residents of a fourth largely undamaged building were allowed back in for a short time Thursday afternoon to collect vital belongings, but they could not move back in immediately because the utilities were shut off. That situation remained the same Friday, Peterson said.
Boarded-up windows along the ground floor of that building were largely a security measure, officials said.
Residents of the more damaged buildings were not allowed in until Friday because debris on the ground and the lack of lighting made it too dangerous.
A reassessment on Friday led to the decision to start allowing residents of the first and second floors in individually for a brief look for important items.
Peterson advised third-floor residents of the three damaged buildings on Thursday that nothing outside of a fire safe would have survived the blaze. Officials will look for fire safes if residents notify them of any.
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