DeKALB – Terell Hudson was hanging outside with his neighbors shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday when he heard screams coming from the apartment complex across the street at 808 Ridge Drive.
As he ran to help, he saw people leaping from the burning building, he said, including a mother who had to throw her baby out of a third-floor window to the father below in a desperate attempt to get to safety.
Hudson said he was in a state of shock but his body wouldn’t let him be still, and he, along with neighbors Christopher Lewis and Myron Robinson rushed toward the flames to try to help.
“We just heard screaming, and we ran around the corner,” Hudson said, who lives at 835 Edgebrook Drive. “We saw people hanging from the window, catching babies; it was crazy. There were people trapped in the back of the building. We got air mattresses onto cars, put the cars under the windows, so people can jump.”
DeKalb Fire Chief Jeff McMaster confirmed Wednesday at a news conference that fire crews responded to a 10:54 p.m. call for a fire at Ridgebrook Apartment complex at 808 Ridge Drive. Crews arrived about 11 p.m. McMaster said the fire is being ruled intentional after crews discovered mattresses were set ablaze in a third-floor common area. The fire is under investigation, with 140 residents displaced. The building has been condemned, and the American Red Cross, as well as the DeKalb County Housing Authority, are working to find shelter for the displaced residents, many of whom have children.
Several residents said they were unhappy with Hunter Properties, which owns the Ridgebrook Apartment complex, and are worried now that they have no permanent place to live, since the 808 Ridge Drive building was condemned. Shortly before noon Wednesday, many tenants gathered outside the apartment complex to try and collect personal items from the building.
One woman, who had to throw her baby out of her third-floor window to her waiting partner below, had an arm in a sling and said she also was given a neck brace. McMaster said both mom and baby, who was not injured, were treated at the hospital and released.
Shania Maffengaffe, 33, and her fiancé live in a third-floor unit next door to the mother. Maffengaffe said she’s just thankful to be alive. She described a smoke-filled scene and said she was panicking because she has asthma.
“I looked out the window, and we couldn’t see anything … even though all our lights were on,” Maffengaffe said. “There was fire coming through the door. You know how the firemen back in middle school always say don’t open the door? If my fiancé did not do that, we would have been trapped. The fire was coming through the ceiling. I was screaming bloody murder.”
Maffengaffe said three people tried to pull the fire alarms manually and the system did not appear to be working. She also said there are three entrances into the complex with locks that have been broken since she moved in three months ago.
Robinson’s fiancée, Joanna McManis, said she called 911 as soon as she saw flames.
“I had to call twice because the first time there was so much traffic probably because everyone was calling,” McManis said. “The apartments were black.”
Resident Debbie Bogacki, who has lived in a third-floor unit since 2014, said the locks have been broken for some time.
“I didn’t hear the fire alarms going off,” Bogacki said. “Me and my husband were sleeping, and I heard somebody banging on my door, that’s what made us get up. We opened the door, and I saw smoke and turned to my husband and said ‘We got to go now.’ He went back in the building three times to get our cats.”
Bogacki said DeKalb police were escorting residents into the building from about 3 to 5 a.m. Wednesday morning to get personal items. She and her husband said they’re living with a friend in DeKalb for the time being while they try to find permanent housing.
“I just want a roof over my head and a place to put my cats,” Bogacki said.
McMaster said his crews immediately called for mutual aid from surrounding fire departments and began tending to the tenants, many of whom were laying on the ground below.
Six people were taken to Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, one with life-threatening injuries. McMaster said he does not have an update on the condition of the individual.
City Manager Bill Nicklas called out Hunter Properties sharply during a news conference Wednesday for what he said was a lack of action by Hunter Properties management to deter arsons in the building, which has been the target of multiple arson fires in recent years.