One year later, cause of Des Plaines fire that killed mother, 4 daughters revealed

  • The deadly January 2021 fire in a building on the 700 block of West Oakton Street in Des Plaines began here on the second floor. The fire killed a mother and her four young daughters.

    The deadly January 2021 fire in a building on the 700 block of West Oakton Street in Des Plaines began here on the second floor. The fire killed a mother and her four young daughters. Courtesy of Des Plaines Fire Department

  • A Jan. 27, 2021, fire that broke out on the second floor of a Des Plaines apartment building left a woman and her four daughters dead.

    A Jan. 27, 2021, fire that broke out on the second floor of a Des Plaines apartment building left a woman and her four daughters dead. Courtesy of Des Plaines Fire Department

  • Grace Espinosa, 2, Allison V. Espinosa, 3, Genesis A. Espinosa, 5, Renata P. Espinosa, 6, and their mother Cithlaly Zamudio died in a Des Plaines house fire on Jan. 27, 2021. Pictured with them is Zamudio's husband and the girls' father, Juan Manuel Espinosa.

    Grace Espinosa, 2, Allison V. Espinosa, 3, Genesis A. Espinosa, 5, Renata P. Espinosa, 6, and their mother Cithlaly Zamudio died in a Des Plaines house fire on Jan. 27, 2021. Pictured with them is Zamudio's husband and the girls' father, Juan Manuel Espinosa. Courtesy of Violeta Gomez-Garcia

  • A Des Plaines woman and her four children were buried at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines after the fatal fire a year ago.

      A Des Plaines woman and her four children were buried at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines after the fatal fire a year ago. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, 2021

 
 
Updated 1/26/2022 9:03 PM

A blaze that killed a Des Plaines woman and her four children one year ago was caused by two electrical cords that had been improperly altered and connected, a local fire official said Wednesday.

One cord was part of a space heater that had been the focus of the investigation from the start, said Division Chief Dave Schuman, of Des Plaines' fire prevention bureau. The other was a heavy-duty extension cord plugged into a wall outlet.

 

Killed in the Jan. 27, 2021, blaze were Cithlaly Zamudio, 25, and daughters Renata Espinosa, 6, Genesis Espinosa, 5, Allison Espinosa, 3, and Grace Espinosa, 1.

The fire occurred in the apartment building on the 700 block of West Oakton Street where the family lived. The building originally was a single-family house but had been converted into apartments.

The space heater was inside the family's second-floor apartment near a stairway, Schuman said. The extension cord was plugged into an outlet in the kitchen.

The fire, which began about 10 a.m., trapped the victims inside because there was no safe exit other than the stairs, officials said at the time.

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

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Forensic electrical engineers hired by an insurance company and an attorney for the family's estate examined the building and debris inside in June as part of their investigations, Schuman said. They concluded the spliced cords caused the fire, he said.

As manufactured, the male end of the heater's electrical cord and the female end of the extension cord didn't match, Schuman said. The ends had been cut off so the wires inside the cords could be spliced, he said.

"If those wires aren't connected properly, it can generate heat and that electrical cord can arc," Schuman said, referring to when electricity jumps from one connection to another.

The resulting electrical flash could be seen in surveillance video from a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago facility across the street from the family's home.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Investigators don't know who spliced the cords.

Strings of Christmas lights inside the apartment were improperly wired to each other, too, but they likely weren't to blame for the fire, Schuman said.

The building where the fire occurred remains unoccupied and boarded up.

Juan Manuel Espinosa, Zamudio's husband and the girls' father, wasn't home when the fire occurred. He has since moved out of state, Schuman said.

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