'A sad day for Des Plaines': Four children, one adult killed in fire
Yein Espinosa was in his Des Plaines home working on remote learning Wednesday morning when he noticed emergency vehicles rushing to the house next door, where his four young nieces lived.
The 17-year-old Elk Grove High School student and a cousin hurried outside to see the smoke and flames pouring from the neighboring two-story structure.
"It all happened so quickly. I was shocked," he said.
They looked on hoping their family members would appear before them after safely escaping the burning house, or be rescued by firefighters battling the blaze. Their wait would be in vain.
In what a veteran city firefighter would later say was the worst call of his career, Espinosa's four nieces -- the oldest just 6 years old -- and an adult family member were killed when flames tore through their home on the 700 block of West Oakton Street.
The victims were identified by the Cook County medical examiner's office as Citahaly Zamiodo, 25, and her children -- Renata P. Espinosa, 6; Genesis A. Espinosa, 5; Allizon V. Espinosa, 3; and Grace Espinosa, 1.
"They were really close," Yein Espinoza said of his nieces. The girl's father, he said, had left for work for the day before fire broke out.
Des Plaines Fire Chief Daniel Anderson called the fire the worst he's handled in more than three decades as a firefighter.
"This is a terrible day," he said. "It's a sad day for Des Plaines."
The cause of the fire remains under investigation by the Des Plaines Fire Department, Illinois State Fire Marshal's Office and a regional task force. It wasn't immediately clear if the house was equipped with working smoke detectors.
Des Plaines Mayor Matt Bogusz said the tragedy "touches the heart of every Des Plaines resident."
"The city and the Des Plaines community grieve with this family and offer our support in any way we can," Bogusz said.
Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 confirmed that Renata was enrolled in the district and sent a brief note to parents.
"It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that we share the news that one of our 1st grade students passed away unexpectedly this morning," it said. Grief counselors would be available to students this week, it said, and it provided advice for how parents could discuss the loss of a peer with their children.
The blaze was reported about 10:15 a.m. It ripped through the two-story building, which real estate records indicate is more than 100 years old. The house had been converted into four apartments, city officials said.
Firefighters pulled all five victims from the structure's second story. The woman was pronounced dead on the scene, but the children were taken to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. They couldn't be revived.
Irma Serrato, a relative who lives next door, told the Chicago Sun-Times the family is shocked and heartbroken.
"Everyone is crying, everyone is down. Pain, what I see is helplessness and pain," Serrato said in Spanish on Wednesday evening. "... It's something that we still don't believe. We still don't know what happened, we don't how it happened, but we are awaiting answers from the authorities."
Pabel Marrero, who lives on the first floor of the duplex, said he awoke to the sound of the kids' footsteps upstairs around 9:30 a.m. A little over a half-hour later, he detected a faint smell of "burnt plastic" and heard a loud banging on his door. A passerby alerted him to the smoke coming from the upstairs apartment and told Marrero he needed to leave.
Marrero said it took only 15 minutes for the whole upstairs to be engulfed in smoke.
"It was bad. The amount of smoke, I've never seen something like that. And then when they opened up the back door, the fire starts coming out the window."
Firefighters had the blaze under control in about 25 minutes. One firefighter suffered a minor knee injury, and a police officer sustained a minor cut, authorities said.
Fire damage to the second story of the building was visible from the outside of the white structure. Windows were broken and the siding was blackened by smoke.
No nearby homes were damaged.
Neighbor Sam Kuraishi said the girls' father cleaned the snow from his driveway, as he often does after snowfalls, before going to work Wednesday morning.
"It's a tragedy," Kuraishi said. "He's such a good man."
Kuraishi said he called the man at work to tell him about the fire but learned he'd already been informed.
"I feel sorry for the kids," Kuraishi said. "He's such a wonderful man."
Marrero recalled the girls being energetic and happy. He said they would play with dolls and build forts in the backyard.
"The kids were always in the yard," he said. "They always liked to be out here, especially in the summer. In the summer, they would be out here all day long."
Des Plaines 8th Ward Alderman Andrew Goczkowski expressed his sadness over the victims' deaths in a Facebook post Wednesday afternoon.
"Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers," he wrote.
Firefighters from Rosemont, Elk Grove Village, Mount Prospect, Park Ridge, Arlington Heights, Rolling Meadows, Glenview, Wood Dale, Bensenville, Niles, Wilmette, Glencoe, and Skokie were among those who assisted Des Plaines crews on the scene.
• Daily Herald staff writer Mark Welsh and the Chicago Sun-Times contributed to this report.