Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer a year ago, Tom Lambert recently hosted a healing ceremony in his Naperville home.
A shaman was brought in, and many of his friends were present. His wife, Jan, played the piano, and the house on Field Court was filled with song.
"It was a very nice time," neighbor Shannon O'Brien said. "I hate to say it now, but he got to see all of his friends. He was happy."
On Wednesday morning fire raged through the Lambert home, killing two people and injuring three others, one of them seriously.
Authorities have not officially identified the victims who died in the blaze, but neighbors say it was Tom and Jan.
Among the injured were Tom's father, 84-year-old John Lambert, and Tom's sister, 56-year-old Patricia Carhoff. A 21-year-old man who was working as a caregiver for Tom and Jan was rescued from the second floor and taken in critical condition to Edward Hospital in Naperville, authorities said.
Firefighters said a neighbor called 911 at 6:50 a.m. reporting flames and smoke coming from the rear of the two-story house on the 1200 block of Field Court, which is near Aurora Avenue and River Road in central Naperville.
The first crews arrived three minutes later to find flames, heavy smoke and extreme heat. They reported the possibility of people trapped directly above the fire.
Authorities said they found the two people who died in the fire near the rear of the home during a secondary search. DuPage County Coroner Rich Jorgenson said official confirmation of their identities may require a review of dental records.
After battling the blaze for about 10 minutes, firefighters said they were forced from the building because of concerns the structure might cave in. The second floor of the house eventually did collapse all the way into the basement.
Authorities said the cause of the blaze remains under investigation.
Field Court resident Sean Burke said he knew something was wrong when he woke around 6:30 a.m. to the sound of sirens. He went outside and saw fire trucks on his street, a command vehicle parked in his driveway and firefighters combating a fire at a house a few houses down from his.
Burke said he heard firefighters say over a radio in the command vehicle that three people were trapped upstairs in the home.
"It was kind of chilling to hear," he said.
Another neighbor, Janet Frye of nearby Berry Drive, said she also woke to the sound of sirens and stepped out on her front porch.
"I saw black smoke coming out of the roof and flames shooting up," she said.
She said firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze fairly quickly but then it flared again. Rick Sander, Naperville Fire Department deputy chief, said a ruptured natural gas line was feeding the fire once it started until a Nicor crew arrived to shut it off.
Firefighters said they evacuated one home briefly Wednesday morning because of the ruptured gas line, and the siding on the house north of the Lamberts' was damaged because of heat from the flames.
"I've never seen that before," Frye said of the fire that left the Lamberts' house uninhabitable and caused more than $200,000 in damage. "It's a scary thing, sad."
Neighbors said Tom Lambert, a psychologist, was an avid runner until being diagnosed with brain cancer. His wife, Jan, was blind and had someone stop by the home to read to her and help her exercise, in addition to the 21-year-old full-time caregiver. At the recent healing ceremony, O'Brien said she was told Tom had four to six weeks to live.
"To be honest, I never knew them until Tom got sick," O'Brien said. "What a shame, but he was living his life."
Neighbors would pitch in to help the Lamberts by raking leaves and bringing over dinners.
Lee Thomsen of Naperville, a family friend of the Lamberts, said he visited Tuesday to adjust the angle of the family's flat-screen TV and make sure their snowblower worked. A retired AT&T technician, Thomsen said he "found a compassion" for the Lamberts and all the health issues they were dealing with.
"I liked them because they were real people," Thomsen said.
By Wednesday afternoon, Tom's sister, Patricia Carhoff, had been treated and released from Edward Hospital, while his father, John Lambert, was listed in good condition. Authorities said the 21-year-old caregiver was to be taken to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood for treatment of smoke inhalation, but his name and condition were not immediately available.
The coroner's office removed the two dead bodies about noon, and firefighters said the house will be demolished once they have gathered all the information they can about the cause of the fire.
Wednesday morning's blaze is the first fatal fire in Naperville since an 82-year-old woman was found dead in her home on Janes Lane after a fire in March 2011, apparently caused by smoking.
As the investigation into the Field Court fire continues, Thomsen said he will be "saying prayers, being grateful for yesterday, having spent time with them," and drawing on one of his favorite sayings:
"Be thankful for today," he said, "because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring."