Looking forward to joining his wife for the next day's celebration of her mother's 63rd birthday, Aleksandr "Alex" Kandelis was at work Wednesday morning when Arlington Heights police told him something had happened and they needed information about his loved ones.
"I tried to call 20, 25 times," Kandelis says, explaining how he first dialed the cellphone of his wife, Svitlana. When she didn't answer, the worried husband called his mother-in-law, Tetiana Krych. When she didn't answer, he called Doris M. Miller, the 93-year-old woman who had hired Krych as her live-in caretaker in her Arlington Heights home, where Svitlana Kandelis would help out and sleep on most weeknights.
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Two hours later, police returned to the transportation company where Kandelis works to tell him that all three women had died in an early morning fire in the home at 311 S. Dunton Ave. in Arlington Heights.
"It killed me a little bit," Kandelis says in a thick Russian accent as he wipes tears from his eyes. "Everything was fine before Nov. 6. They were very nice ladies. I was most happy."
An immigrant from Kiev in the Ukraine, Kandelis, 43, became a U.S. citizen in 2000 and makes his living driving a van to take special education students to and from school. He became friends with Krych, another naturalized citizen from Kiev, and she encouraged him to reach out to her daughter, who worked for a dentist in Kiev.
"We talked. We write letters. We Skype," Kandelis says of his relationship with Svitlana. "I met her in Kiev three years ago, but I've known her for years."
He brought her to the United States on Sept. 11, 2011, and they were married five days later on her 38th birthday in a ceremony at Chicago's City Hall.
"We got married Sept. 16 as a present for her birthday," Kandelis says. "She tell me I gave her present. I tell her the present was for me."
His wife was learning English as a full-time student at Harper College in Palatine. She didn't drive and Kandelis' work schedule made it impossible for him to take her to classes. So Svitlana Kandelis, 40, often spent weeknights at the house in Arlington Heights, helping her mom, and making it easier for her to catch a ride to school with friends.
"We had plans for children, but no. It's all different now," says Kandelis, who talked to his wife by phone on the night before she died. "She told me, 'Don't worry. We'll see you tomorrow.'"
All three women died from heat injuries and smoke inhalation in the fire, which is believed to have started in the kitchen.
"I have no complaints with police and firefighters. I know it is accident," Kandelis says.
He says his wife loved to watch American TV, had improved her English and was becoming a very good cook of foods from their homeland as well as hamburgers and other American foods. She wanted to take classes that would enable her to continue her medical technician career with a dentist or doctor near Wheeling, where the couple made their home, Kandelis says.
Members of the Christian Orthodox community, the couple often attended church services in Des Plaines.
"We were happy," Kandelis says. "Now, I have no plan for the future."