Thursday, December 10, 2009


by Barbara D'Amato

This is not the blog I intended to post.

Last night around one a.m. I woke up to the sound of sirens. Now, I live two blocks from the huge Northwestern University medical complex and two blocks from a fire station, so we have more sirens than crickets here. But this was different. In minutes, the street was full of fire trucks and ambulances.

It turned out to be a 5 alarm fire in a high rise around the corner from us, at 260 E. Chestnut. The fire department had responded very rapidly to a call from the thirty-sixth floor of the building. Eighteen ambulances, over twenty fire trucks, and three hundred firefighters responded, one-third of Chicago's firefighting force. A helicopter hovered over Lake Michigan, training a spotlight at the building.

Two hundred residents escaped. There were twelve people injured, including five firefighters, and one fatality, apparently a woman in the apartment where the fire started.

It's been reported variously as a forty-four or fifty-one story building. The fire "lapped over" as the firefighters say, from floor thirty-six to thirty-seven, shooting out of the windows of thirty-six, breaking the windows of thirty-seven with its heat and then being sucked into thirty-seven.

Our building was never in any danger. But it reminds me of how vulnerable you feel living in a highrise.

I lived in houses until just a few years ago. I don't know whether, statistically, you are safer in a house or an apartment building, but you feel more in control. I believed in a house I could jump out of an upstairs window if I had to and run into the back yard. In a highrise you are dependent on other people doing the best thing.

The fire department last night did a great job. They searched the building, making sure everybody was safe, including a 105-year-old resident. A man and his young child had climbed onto the roof and called 911 from there. Firefighters took a canvas up to keep them warm until it was safe to bring them down in the freight elevator. And they and the EMTs were working in seven-degree weather. The EMTs were out on the street from one a.m. until five. And yes, the ambulances are heated, but they aren't toasty warm in weather like that.

Which leads me to some reminders. In a fire:

Stay in your apartment if at all possible. As the fire chief said this morning "We'll find you.".

But help them. Tell 911 where you are. The man on the roof called 911 to tell firefighters where he and his daughter were.

Put wet towels under the doors to keep smoke out of your apartment.

Keep a flashlight where you can find it easily and make sure it has working batteries.


David said...

Barb, what a terrifying experience. Our reporter who was at the scene, Jeremy Gorner, just left the newsroom to go home. Jeremy worked several years at the old City News Service, so he's no stranger to covering fires in the middle of the night, but he said this was the first time he ever felt sick from breathing in smoke. Even at the ground level, it was everywhere.

Rex Ray said...

I too awoke to all of the commotion at the fire in the building behind us on Chestnut. I also began thinking about relative safety of houses vs. high-rises. I've only been living in Mies Van der Rohe City for 4 years now. So hello neighbor. Hope you sleep better tonight.

Barbara D'Amato said...

David, actually I kept checking Jeremy Gorner's dispatches to the Trib last night to find out what was happening. When you see him again, thank him for me if you feel like it.

Rex--it's a small world. Who knew somebody in the neighborhood read our blog? Welcome to the area.

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, how terrifying, and how sad for those caught inside. I'm glad you're safe.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Great post, Barb.

And thanks for the reminder.

FIONA said...

Another reminder--Check your smoke detectors. Have one in each bedroom, the kitchen, and mechanical/laundry room.

Our neighbor suffered a house fire four months ago. Nobody was home. The neighbor across the street saw smoke and called 911.

Everyone tried to get in touch with our neighbor. He was at a move and did not answer his phone. My teen suggested texting him.

He read the text and was home in 10 min.

IN an emergency, try texting first, then calling.

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Barbara D'Amato said...

Another thing--after hearing what happened to a friend of mine who lived in a house, not a highrise--get carbon monoxide detectors. Get carbon monoxide detectors. Get carbon mon--well, just get them. Fires in walls can smolder for days, but CO detectors give you warning.