Chicago, IL Fire In Transient Hotel, Mar 1981
19 DIE IN CHICAGO FIRE.
Fire raced through an aging transient hotel in an arson-ravaged neighborhood on the Chicago's North Side before dawn Saturday, killing 19 persons and injuring 14 more.
Firefighters searched the smoke-blackened stairwells and rooms of the Royal Beach Hotel in Uptown for victims, many of whom were trapped on the upper floors of the building by blinding thick black smoke.
Fire officials said they expected the death count to remain at 19, although an unattached arm also was found inside the building and officials said they were unsure whether the arm belonged to a 20th victim.
Building residents said they heard rumors the blaze was set by arsonists and an arson investigation is under way. A police investigation is under way. A police spokesman, however, said it appeared the blaze may have been electrical and spread quickly because of the "chimney-effect" of the building's stairwells.
Panic may have contributed to the death toll.
"Everybody panicked," said MICHAEL VEST, 23, a resident of the fourth floor who was rescued by firefighters. "They were hollering, 'Help! I don't want to die!"
"All the lights went out and people were bumping into each other in the halls."
VEST, an umemployed welder who had lived in the building for two months, said when he first noticed the fire, he pulled a fire alarm box in the hallway but it did not go off. He said the smoke detector in his apartment did not work and the ones in neighboring apartments did not go off.
Others may have died because they did not know how serious the fire was.
"I thought, 'Oh, it's just another mattress fire,'" said one resident, who was surprised when he opened his door and found the hallway filled with whick black smoke.
He said at least four small mattress fires have occurred in the building recently and other residents may have delayed fleeing because they didn't realize this fire was different.
The building had been cited for numerous code violations. The building's owner, identified as MOSBE MENORA, was unavailable for comment.
Amont the 14 persons injured were two police officers.
Patrolman MARTIN KEEHN, 28, one of the two injured officers, said when he arrived at the scene it was "so smoky you couldn't see two feet in front of you. All we could remember are people screaming for help."
"All we were doing was beating on walls. We took one man down and we wanted to go back in but we couldn't. We were gasping for breath -- really disoriented."
Choking clouds of black smoke billowed from the apartment hotel. Neighbors in the poverty-stricken neighborhood -- some sobbing, some drinking from paper-wrapped bottles -- huddled in the pre-dawn darkness, watching helplessly as the flames consumed the building.
One elderly man stood in the middle of the street, staring, sobbing and saying nothing.
Officials said a number of the building's residents were former patients of the ATA Community Detox Center, an alcoholism treatment facility about half a block away.
A security guard said about 100 persons lived in the 72-unit, four-story brown brick building.
Dozens of persons milled around fire and police equipment parked in the narrow street outside the building, which began collapsing as flames shot through the roof.
"I was watching TV when it all started," said MATT WEISS, 32, who had lived in the building since last October."
"The lights started flickering and I smelled smoke."
"I pulled one of those red alarms in the hall and I went knocking on doors trying to get everybody out."
WEISS said it was a matter of seconds before the building's fourth floor hallway was filled with smoke. He said he was unable to get down the building's stairwells and escaped when fire-fighters extended a ladder to a window.
Fire Capt. TOM O'CONNELL said most of the dead were found in their rooms, but several others were found trapped in stairwells.
"The fire was going from the basement through the roof when we arrived" at 3:02 a.m., O'CONNELL said. The blaze may have been burning for as long as 45 minutes before an alarm was turned in, he said.
Fire Commissioner WILLIAM BLAIR said the fire destroyed the first floor landing in the back stairwell, trapping victims on the floors above.
Daily Herald Chicago Illinois 1981-03-15