Police have opened a neglect investigation after 10 children died in Chicago’s deadliest house fire in decades.
Siblings Maya Almaraz, three months, Ariel Garcia, five, Xavier Contreras, 11 and Nathan Contreras, 13, died alongside cousins Alanni Ayala, three, Gialanni Ayala, five, and Giovanni Ayala, 10, and friend Victor Mendoza, 16 in a blaze that broke out in Little Village on Sunday.
Cesar Contreras, 14, survived the blaze alongside Adrian Hernandez, also 14, but both later died in hospital.
Investigators say there were no adults at home when the blaze broke out and the apartment was not fitted with smoke alarms, though they still don’t know how the fire started and have ruled out electrical issues.
Officials are looking into whether cigarettes or bottle rockets found on the back step could have been the cause.
Meanwhile building owner Merced Gutierrez revealed that he tried to evict the woman renting the apartment back in July for refusing to pay her rent.
Lawyer Raul Serrato told the Chicago Sun-Times that he filed a lawsuit against tenant Yolanda Ayala on July 20 and that the case was pending.
Serrato said Gutierrez had evicted Ramoncita Reyes, Ayala’s mother, from a first-floor apartment in the same building in October 2016.
A fire broke out in that apartment shortly after she was kicked out, Serrato claimed, but nobody was harmed.
The unit has been vacant ever since, with the children living in another apartment on the second floor.
Building records seen by the Sun-Times show that the second-floor apartment was cited for not having smoke detectors in October 2015, but that it was brought up to code by May the following year.
Authorities insist they found no evidence of alarms fitted in the apartment, but Serrato denies this, saying his client had installed them.
A fire department spokesman said the position of the children’s bodies suggested they were not trying to escape the fire when they perished.
The death toll would have been ‘lower, if not non-existent’ had the apartment been fitted with alarms, the spokesman added.
Jessie Cobos leaned over a cross as he watched a local resident write the names of the victims who perished in the fire.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Cobos was a caretaker of Giovanni, Gialanni, and Alanni.
‘I got a phone call stating that there was a fire on this block and the pastor wanted me to come pray for the family,’ he said.
‘I never knew I was going to come pray for my own kids,’ he told the newspaper.
Another photo shows Cobos clutching a tiny Mickey Mouse plush toy as he tried to fight back his tears.
‘Anything could happen from one minute or the next. If I could only go back to last night and give my kids one more hug, let them know that they are loved.’
Marcos Contreras (left) and his sister Amber Ayala mourn the loss of their siblings who were killed in an early-morning fire in the Little Village neighborhood
Jessie Cobos (right) leaned over a cross as he watched a local resident write the names of the victims who perished in the fire
According to the Chicago Tribune, Cobos was a caretaker of Giovanni, Gialanni, and Alanni. ‘I got a phone call stating that there was a fire on this block and the pastor wanted me to come pray for the family,’ he said
Mourners surround Cobos and a wooden cross that holds the names of six of the eight victims
Another photo shows Cobos (right) clutching a tiny Mickey Mouse plush toy as he tried to fight back his tears
Cobos is seen writing the name of a victim on a white wooden cross, which will serve as a memorial outside a home in the Little Village neighborhood
The fire tore through the home in Chicago Sunday morning.
A dog was also killed in the fire, while a firefighter was hospitalized in good condition.
A group of people were gathered outside the hospital, waiting for news of their loved ones, when they were told about the fatalities.
‘I can’t live without my babies,’ one woman cried.
Commissioner José Santiago said the city has not had ‘this amount of fatalities and injuries in one location’ for ‘many, many years’.
The fire started on the second floor of the building. The first floor was vacant.
Firefighters were called to the West Side building just before 4am and the fire was put out by 5.10am.
Those who were killed and injured were all transported to the hospital from the same residence.
The fire tore through the home in Chicago Sunday morning. A dog was also killed in the fire, while a firefighter was hospitalized in good condition
The cause of the fire has not been determined but no smoke detectors were found in the home, officials said
Commissioner José Santiago said the city has not had ‘this amount of fatalities and injuries in one location’ for ‘many, many years’
Santiago revealed the fire could have taken even more lives if it wasn’t for one quick-thinking woman who lived nearby.
‘She had just gotten home from work. She smelled it. I think she saw it,’ he said.
‘And then she started immediately knocking on doors, ringing doorbells,’ Santiago added.
Santiago said the woman ‘saved a lot of lives’ amid the horrific tragedy.
The building failed its last inspection in June due to electrical issues, according to the Building Department website.
The fire also caused another structure two buildings down to catch on fire. No injuries were reported in that building.
Red Cross workers were at the scene of the tragedy to provide support and hand out food and drinks to the grieving community.
Celena Roldan, the Chief Executive Officer for the Red Cross in Chicago and Northern Illinois, said the organization would provide mental health support and help the affected families find financial assistance.
It will also help organize funerals and community memorials in the next few weeks.
The Red Cross will work with the fire department to help install smoke alarms in the area.
Chicago firefighters walk under tape at the scene of the fire on Sunday morning. Firefighters were called to the West Side building just before 4am and the fire was out by 5.10am
People carry items away from the scene of the fire. The fire also caused another structure two buildings down to catch alight
American Red Cross workers remain at the scene after a fire tore through the West Side building on Sunday
People stand around at the scene of the fire on Sunday morning. Those who were killed and injured were all transported to the hospital from the same residence