A fire gutted the apartments at 5305 South Woodlawn Avenue early Saturday morning, displacing 13 people and forcing several others to evacuate and temporarily relocate from adjacent buildings. Firefighters battled frozen hydrants and sub-freezing temperatures to keep the fire from spreading across the block.
"We still don't know what caused it," said fire department spokesman Kevin MacGregor. "It preliminarily looks like it started on the first floor unit, spread upwards, and caused the partial collapse of the roof."
MacGregor said the department received a call at 3 a.m. Saturday. The firefighters arrived a few minutes later and evacuated everyone safely before the fire consumed the building.
"There was an explosion and it woke all of us up," said Debbie McElroy, who lived on the first floor of the building where the fire began. "When I opened my front door, I saw the unit across from me engulfed in flames."
McElroy was able to exit through the front of the building and dial 911 from her cellular phone. In the meantime, her neighbors managed to escape down the back stairs.
According to MacGregor, the squad fought the fire for several hours. They were unable to save the buildingone of three in a condominium complexbut managed to prevent it from spreading to the adjacent apartments just north of the fire, where flames caused some minimal damage.
The University immediately sent one of its late night vans to the scene to keep the residents warm before two Chicago Transit Authority buses arrived. Residents huddled inside while firefighters took breaks to warm up before returning to the blaze.
"It was so cold that the firefighters would come in with huge chunks of ice [on them] because they were spraying water everywhere," said Aza Raskin, a third-year in the College who rents a condominium in the complex. "It was kind of tragically beautiful."
The Salvation Army and Red Cross were on hand to provide food and help the displaced families find temporary shelter. According to Raskin, everyone waiting in the warming buses was able to make arrangements with friends or family members that night.
Raskin and his roommate, Andrew Wilson, also a third-year in the College, are being housed temporarily in a guest room at the Shoreland, according to Katie Callow-Wright, director of undergraduate housing. She said the housing office would re-evaluate the students' situation and their housing needs throughout the week. The units in their building suffered little damage and should be fully functional by Friday.
"Our apartment is hickory-flavored now, but we had no damage," Raskin said.
Those who lived in the burned building, however, will be out of their homes for at least nine months. According to McElroy, she might be able to return to sift through the remains of her belongings and salvage any important papers she can find.
The damage to the building was estimated at $1.5 million, well under the association's $2 million insurance. "But most of the people on that side of the building didn't have personal insurance," McElroy said. "We all felt we were covered under the condo insurance."
McElroy said a firefighter on the scene told her the building would likely be condemned by the city, but the condominium association has decided to try to rebuild it. The building's internal structure was destroyed, but its superstructure, which had been redone recently, may hold up once the ice coating melts.
But McElroy thinks this isn't a good idea. "Just from my observations, the structure is not sound and it needs to be condemned," she said. "I think they may want to start from scratch."