'It's gone': Massive fire guts Prospect Heights apartment buildings

A massive blaze tore through a Prospect Heights apartment complex Wednesday afternoon, injuring at least three, leaving dozens homeless and keeping about 150 firefighters from across the suburbs busy for hours.

Prospect Heights Fire Protection District Chief Drew Smith said two residents and one Prospect Heights firefighter suffered minor injuries in the five-alarm fire, but all three declined treatment at the scene or transport to a hospital. Reports of other injuries or residents trapped in their apartments were "erroneous," and by 9 p.m., there were no other reported injuries, he said.

"We're in the phase now where it's not going to get any worse," Smith said late Wednesday afternoon, as firefighters continued put out the blaze after nearly five hours on the scene.

With firefighters working into the evening to put out remaining embers, Smith said it was too early to launch an investigation into the cause of the fire.

It's likely firefighters will remain overnight dealing with the aftermath of the fire at the River Trails Condominium complex, southwest of Milwaukee Avenue and Palatine Road, he said.

Among the residents displaced was Monika Alvarez, who lives there with her husband, 16-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter and the family dog. She was away from home Wednesday afternoon when her son sent her video of flames pouring from an adjacent apartment building.

By the time she got home, the fire had spread to her building.

"It's done. It's gone," she said. "Now I don't know what I'm going to do. Thank God I've got my babies.

"I'm heartbroken for myself and everyone else here," Alvarez said.

  Firefighters spent hours battling a massive fire Wednesday at the River Trails condominium complex in Prospect Heights. Residents of 96 apartments were evacuated because of the fire. Joe Lewnard/

Firefighters called to the complex on the 800 block of McIntosh Court at 1:23 p.m. arrived to find smoke and flames coming from a second-floor unit of a three-story building, Smith said.

The fire advanced to a third-floor apartment and into an attic area above, allowing flames to rapidly spread through the structure and into two connected buildings. A fourth connected building was not damaged by flames, Smith said, but residents of all 96 units in the four buildings were evacuated.

Windy conditions also helped spread the fire quickly and made conditions too dangerous for firefighters to go on the roof to extinguish flames, Smith said.

  Residents and neighbors watch as firefighters continue to douse the fire at the River Trail condominiums Wednesday. Joe Lewnard/

"The wind definitely played a role. There was nothing we could do about that," he said. Smith said the fire was still going in one of the three buildings at 9 p.m., but firefighters were close to extinguishing it.

It was too early for a full damage estimate, but he said 24 units were completely burned up and another 72 units suffered varying degrees of smoke and water damage.

Lakewood Chapel in Arlington Heights and the Red Cross are working together to offer shelter, food, clothing and showers to displaced residents. They can go to the church at 1307 E. Palatine Road to stay and get help for as long as it takes to get back on their feet, Pastor John Elleson said.

The Red Cross is having 100 cots delivered to the church for the residents, Elleson said. Pizzas also were being delivered to residents still around the condo complex, and residents who wanted shelter could be shuttled to Lakewood Chapel, he said.

Residents need not be members of the church. They can call (847) 259-0700, or visit

Allison Amesquita, who lives in a condo building immediately south of the buildings on fire, was home around 1:30 p.m. when the fire began, and smoke already was everywhere.

"My hair smelled like smoke from getting out of my car and walking into my building," Amesquita said.

In all, about 150 firefighters from 50 departments in communities stretching from Lake Michigan to Elgin fought the blaze, according to Smith.

It's the largest fire the department has battled since a Christmas Eve 2006 fire in the same complex displaced 53 residents, Smith said. Wednesday's fire appears worse, he said.

Despite the large amount of smoke coming from the buildings, the fire did not affect operations at the nearby Chicago Executive Airport, airport spokesman Rob Mark said.

"With a southwesterly wind, the smoke is going away from the airport, at least for the moment," he said.

• Daily Herald staff writers Lauren Rohr and Marie Wilson, and correspondent Natalie Watts contributed to this story.

Images: Massive apartment fire in Prospect Heights

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