Residents fear ‘irreplaceable losses’ after devastating fire

Eric Bowman believes he’ll find nothing worth saving when authorities allow him back into his family’s apartment, one of dozens left in ruins Wednesday after a massive fire ripped through three Prospect Heights condominium buildings.

But some losses stand out more than others: family photos, childhood keepsakes, letters his wife received from her brother before he died while serving in the military.

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“Those are the irreplaceable losses,” said Bowman, who lived in the River Trails complex with his wife, 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

Nearly 100 families woke up Thursday like Bowman did — dazed, homeless and uncertain about what happens next. Most won’t be allowed back into what’s left of their homes until Friday, if then. Some, especially those living on the top floor of the three-story buildings, may never be able to return.

“I hate to say it, but if you’re a top-floor person, you might as well find a new apartment,” Prospect Heights Fire Protection District Chief Drew Smith said.

Anything on the third floor not kept in a fireproof safe likely is gone, added Dan Peterson, Prospect Heights’ building and development director.

Firefighters and investigators remained on the scene throughout the day Thursday working to make a final determination of its cause.

“We know where the fire started,” Smith said. “We have a reasonable belief how it started.”

Asked about reports that a minor sparked the fire while playing with a lighter, Prospect Heights Police Chief Al Steffen said the cause appears accidental.

“I’m not going to comment on anything involving a juvenile,” he said.

The fire broke out shortly before 1:30 p.m. in one of four interconnected buildings in the condominium complex, southwest of Milwaukee Avenue and Palatine Road. Aided by winds and the building’s design, flames spread quickly to two neighboring buildings, sending smoke visible from miles away high into the air.

An estimated 150 firefighters and 50 suburban fire departments took part in battling the blaze, which was brought under control between 11 p.m. and midnight, Smith said. Two residents and one firefighter suffered minor injuries.

The fire proved difficult to extinguish in part because of the design of the 24-unit buildings, Smith said. An open attic space above the third-floor apartments allowed flames to spread rapidly while making it too dangerous for firefighters to work atop the roof. The units did not have sprinklers.

“We had a fire that was trapped in an area we couldn’t get to,” Smith said.

While residents of the fourth building not directly affected by flames were permitted to go inside Thursday to retrieve belongings, their units remain uninhabitable because they have no electricity or water.

Those living in the three other buildings were not allowed in Thursday. Smith said the city will assess the structures again Friday to determine if they are safe.

Among those wondering when or if they’d be permitted back in Thursday was Aurelia Diaz. She was hoping to see if her diabetes medicine survived, after she passed out during the fire because she did not have it. But after determining that even police wouldn’t be able to enter the apartment, efforts began to get her an emergency supply from her pharmacy.

While an enormous cleanup effort remains at River Trails, Prospect Heights and the surrounding community are rallying around the fire victims. As many as 80 River Trails residents spent the night at nearby Lakewood Chapel in Arlington Heights, and offers of assistance were pouring in Thursday from hotels, restaurants and other businesses, Mayor Nick Helmer said.

“It’s beautiful to hear that all these people want to help,” he said.

Brayan De Ita and his 16-year-old brother, Jose, were among the displaced residents who found refuge at the church.

“We really didn’t know what to expect,” Ita said. “We were uneasy.”

But after a night’s sleep, shower, meals and even a pickup game of basketball in the parking lot, the brothers were looking forward to getting back to their apartment to see what remains.

While many of those who’ve sought help at the church lost everything in the fire, Lakewood Pastor John Elleson said the church has been flooded with unsolicited donations.

“Good things are coming about already,” he said.

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