After fire rips through Crystal Lake condo building, the residents get well-planned help
Imagine it's 3 a.m. and the fire alarm goes off.
You get out of your home safely, but you're in your pajamas with no shoes and no phone. You don't have your blood pressure medication, either, and you've heard predictions for a heat wave in the next few days.
Residents of a condo building in Crystal Lake don't have to imagine such a scenario because they're living it.
It began early Wednesday when fire broke out at their building at 540 Devonshire Lane, requiring crews to issue a third alarm to recruit extra help.
It continued as firefighters and police officers helped all residents safely evacuate, then deemed the 19-unit building uninhabitable as they investigate the fire's cause and origin.
It shifted around 5:20 a.m. as the flames were extinguished and the immediate safety concern receded, with no injuries to residents or emergency responders.
Fire officials said the blaze was accidental, possibly caused by an unattended candle on a balcony, and did an estimated $3.5 million damage.
Good Samaritans such as Red Cross volunteer Jackie Speciale and Crystal Lake pastor Nathan Bargo stepped in Wednesday morning and started to help with the life-altering aftermath of such a large fire.
Bargo opened the doors of his church, Real Life Church of the Nazarene at 531 Devonshire Lane, to displaced residents as soon as he saw the flashing lights of fire trucks and heard the sounds of police officers telling people to back away from the flames.
"I noticed there were people that needed a place to go," Bargo said, "so I volunteered to open our church."
He grabbed chairs and gave people a place to sit, starting with the senior citizens among the crowd of 20 or 25 who had just lost their homes. Some wanted to sit with a view of their building across the street and watch the ladder trucks and other equipment from 21 emergency response agencies as personnel worked to battle rooftop flames, Bargo said.
Others went into caregiver mode and asked their neighbors if there was any way they could help.
"A lot of people were just grateful that no one was injured and everyone made it out safe," Bargo said.
They were grateful, too, for the food.
A nearby resident -- no one knows who -- dropped off a cooler of snacks and drinks that pretty obviously came from a home fridge, Bargo said. The Country Donuts shop just around the corner from the condos also fed the crowd with morning staples of coffee and doughnuts.
Co-owner Scott Offord said Speciale reached him on his cellphone at 4:46 a.m. during the bicycle commute he's made from his Woodstock home to the shop for the past 26 years. He quickly agreed to send over six dozen doughnuts and provide some free caffeine.
"The community's been good to us, so we always try to help," he said.
His parking lot helped, too, as curious onlookers came to watch the large response.
"There were so many fire departments here," Offord said.
The Red Cross, meanwhile, began to help with its well-known service of providing physical shelter, and the Salvation Army provided assistance as well. But Speciale said the Red Cross' work actually begins with more immediate emotional and personal needs.
"We first and foremost provide emotional support," she said. "Obviously it's quite a shock to folks to get woken up in the middle of the night to have to leave their building. That's what we start with."
Next comes clean clothes "that smell good," she said, and comfort kits so fire victims can wash their faces and brush their teeth. As far as basic self care, she said, "there's nothing better."
Later in the assistance process Wednesday morning, Speciale said, she provided phones for residents to begin calling their relatives and friends, connecting with the support networks they already have to take the first steps toward fire recovery.
"That's really important, especially in the beginning, because most people feel safer when they're connecting with people they love and care about," Speciale said.
She connected residents Wednesday with on-call nurses who help replace lost or abandoned prescriptions and with contact information for utilities and public services, so they don't have to pay for cable at a burned-out condo or wait for mail delivery that now has nowhere to go.
"I write it down on a list for them so they don't have to remember anything," she said.
For their part, Crystal Lake fire rescue crews spent more than two hours putting out the flames. They're hoping to allow residents back in to what remains of their homes.
"It's kind of a complete loss, unfortunately," Deputy Fire Chief Chris Olsen said about the building in a video posted to the department's Facebook page. "But we will get them in to salvage what we can when we deem that it's safe."
Investigators, too, had to wait until the building could be stabilized to continue determining how and where the fire began.
Across the street as the condo residents headed to their relatives' homes or workplaces, Bargo began to coordinate donations.
"We're here to help," he said, "if people need help or somebody to talk to."
• Daily Herald staff writer Harry Hitzeman contributed to this report.