Fatal Des Plaines fire started at least seven minutes before first 911 call, new report states

  • Grace Espinosa, 1, Allison V. Espinosa, 3, Genesis A. Espinosa, 5, Renata P. Espinosa, 6, and their mother, Cithlaly Zamudio, died in a Jan. 27 fire in Des Plaines.

    Grace Espinosa, 1, Allison V. Espinosa, 3, Genesis A. Espinosa, 5, Renata P. Espinosa, 6, and their mother, Cithlaly Zamudio, died in a Jan. 27 fire in Des Plaines. Courtesy of Violeta Gomez-Garcia

  • A fire that killed a mother and her four young daughters in this Des Plaines home started on the second floor outside the family's apartment, essentially trapping them inside because there was no safe secondary exit, according to a newly released city report.

    A fire that killed a mother and her four young daughters in this Des Plaines home started on the second floor outside the family's apartment, essentially trapping them inside because there was no safe secondary exit, according to a newly released city report. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, January 2021

  • This photograph inside a house on the 700 block of West Oakton Street in Des Plaines shows the spot where a deadly fire began, as well as a space heater officials say may have ignited the blaze.

    This photograph inside a house on the 700 block of West Oakton Street in Des Plaines shows the spot where a deadly fire began, as well as a space heater officials say may have ignited the blaze. Courtesy of Des Plaines Fire Department

 
 
Updated 3/9/2021 4:07 PM

A fire that killed a Des Plaines woman and her four children in January started at least seven minutes before authorities received the first 911 call about the blaze, a newly released report revealed.

The 43-page report also confirmed the blaze started in a stairwell outside the family's second-floor apartment on the 700 block of West Oakton Street, essentially trapping the victims inside because there was no safe secondary exit.

 

A small balcony on the east side of the building didn't have a ladder or stairs to the ground, the report revealed. It also was blocked by furniture.

Although the fire's cause remains under investigation, an electric space heater and an extension cord were found in the stairwell and have been a focal point of the investigation from its start, the report states.

The building -- originally a single-family house that had been converted into four apartments -- had no smoke detectors on the second floor, officials have said.

Killed in the Jan. 27 blaze were Cithlaly Zamudio, 25, and daughters Renata Espinosa, 6, Genesis Espinosa, 5, Allison Espinosa, 3, and Grace Espinosa, 1.

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The investigative report was released to the media Tuesday and published on the official Des Plaines website, desplaines.org. A summary with a visual timeline also is available, as is a city-produced video timeline.

Fire seen on videos

The Des Plaines Fire Department has led the investigation, receiving assistance from the Illinois State Fire Marshal's Office and a regional fire investigations team.

The investigation included reviews of police body camera video and surveillance video from a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago facility located across the street from the house, interviews, a review of 911 calls and on-scene damage assessment.

According to the report, the first exterior sign that something was wrong at the house occurred at 10:03 a.m. when a water district camera captured a bright flash in the second story of the residential building. Five minutes later, smoke could be seen coming from the building.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The first 911 call, from a passerby, was received by the Northwest Central Dispatch System at 10:10 a.m., the report states.

"It's very possible the fire had been burning several minutes before that first call," Des Plaines spokeswoman Jennie Vana said.

The first 911 call was transferred to a Regional Emergency Dispatch Center in Northbrook, where an employee identified an approximate location and alerted Des Plaines firefighters.

Originally reported as smoke coming from a building, the call was upgraded to a working fire within minutes, which resulted in more trucks and firefighters heading to the scene, according to the report.

Officer first on scene

A Des Plaines police officer arrived three minutes after firefighters were dispatched to the blaze. The first fire engine and ambulance arrived a minute later, the report states. More personnel arrived as crews began fighting the blaze and searching for people inside, including from neighboring departments.

Rescue crews encountered "significant" smoke and fire when trying to enter the family's apartment, the report states. By 10:20 a.m., flames had consumed the only entry to the second floor apartment, the report reads.

Firefighters suppressed the worst of the flames with water, got inside and located all five victims in a bedroom, the report states. They were removed from the building about 10:30 a.m., the report indicates.

"Firefighters made a valiant effort to give those trapped a chance to survive by locating them and removing them from the hazardous conditions," the report says.

Zamudio was pronounced dead on the scene. The children were pronounced dead at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.

Two other occupants of the building got out safely with help from police and a passerby, the report states.

Moving forward

Des Plaines officials last inspected the Oakton Street property in 2018 pending a sale, the report states. At that time, it met all inspection requirements, including the required number of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

The report recommends several aspects of the fire and the public-safety response be evaluated. They include dispatch and communications, 911 call-taking processes, fire department tactics and strategy, the city's building codes and the inspection process of multifamily dwellings.

The report also suggests a public awareness campaign promoting smoke detectors, fire alarm systems, sprinkler systems and other safety precautions.

Alderman and mayoral candidate Andrew Goczkowski, whose 8th Ward includes the building that caught fire, said the city must take steps "to avoid tragedies like this in the future."

"The city council will be revisiting our codes and ordinances related to rental dwellings to ensure that we are adhering to best practices," he said.

Noting that the family's apartment didn't have working smoke alarms, 5th Ward Alderman Carla Brookman said she'll propose requiring every rental property in the city to have alarms that are hooked up to the building's electrical system.

"Such a system would not depend on batteries to function," Brookman said. "As long as the electrical power is working, the fire alarm system will activate in a fire."

Early fire detection could've given Zamudio and her children time to escape, Brookman said. It also could've resulted in the fire being reported to authorities earlier, she said.

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