SYCAMORE – Michelle Schroeder had just finished baking a batch of cookies in the oven about 5:30 p.m. Saturday when her 7-year-old daughter, Shailyn, ran up to her yelling.
“She told me that the apartment building’s fire alarms were going off,” Schroeder said. “I couldn’t hear them and didn’t really think anything of it. There have been about two other fire alarms in the past year. I went out into the hallway, and a neighbor said there’s a balcony on fire.”
The fire in 50,000-square-foot Building A of the St. Albans Green apartment complex at 711 S. Main St. would rage into the early hours of Sunday, with firefighters from more than 20 departments eventually called to help.
Authorities said the fire appeared to have started on a second-floor balcony and spread to the attic, where it burned ferociously for hours. The U-shaped building, with units from studio apartments up to three-bedroom quarters, is a total loss. About 120 people were displaced, with some people spending the night in the gym at nearby Southeast Elementary School. Some residents said most everything they owned had been destroyed.
“The fire started on a second-floor balcony and quickly extended into the attic,” Sycamore Deputy Chief Art Zern said. “Station 1 was out on call, so Engine 2 was the first to arrive on scene. They were aggressive in their attack, but soon the fire extended in both directions above their heads. They pulled out of the building and became defensive, getting everyone out of the building.”
Fire erupts and rages
People living in homes nearby said they heard what sounded like a pair of explosions that shook their homes when the fire started about 5:30 p.m.
Schroeder quickly told her children to leave the apartment, had one of them wake up their sleeping father, and then went to help her mother evacuate. Schroeder had just enough time to return to her apartment to grab her purse, the cellphones on the counter and a family photo before leaving the building. Her 13-year-old daughter, Laynee Sosin, helped their 80-year-old neighbor Dodie Jenson escape with her cat. Schroeder didn’t have enough time to save her family’s two gerbils or her mother’s cat, Milkshake.
The Schroeder family and the residents of St. Albans Green watched in shock from the carport area as their apartment building was engulfed in flames.
When firefighters first arrived at the building Saturday evening, they began running hoses from an engine through the main building entrance, up to the second floor, where the smoke was thickest, Sycamore Deputy Fire Chief Todd Turner said. They left the building after superheated air and gas inside caused a violent smoke explosion.
The fire’s smoke was heavy and at times blocked out the sun, sweeping down in plumes. The dark gray smoke could be seen from miles away.
DeKalb and Hampshire fire departments deployed tower ladder trucks, allowing firefighters to douse the flames from above the building.
The St. Charles Fire Department arrived later with an aerial ladder truck, and the Hinckley Fire Department brought a truck with an articulating boom.
Through constant work to contain the flames, firefighters were able to prevent any fire damage to nearby homes, including the other 40-unit building in the complex, Turner said.
Most of the fire crews from more than 20 departments called to help had left the scene by 5 a.m., he said.
The fire had burned the roof off the building and destroyed its second floor, although some items might be salvageable from first-floor units, Turner said.
“This is probably one of the biggest fires that Sycamore’s had,” Turner said.
Firefighters from multiple departments were called to the scene, including Sycamore, DeKalb, Genoa-Kingston, NIU, Sugar Grove, Cortland, Kirkland, Maple Park, Burlington, Malta, Hampshire and St. Charles. DeKalb County sheriff’s deputies and Sycamore police also assisted.
Several Sycamore firefighters were back on the scene Sunday night after the fire rekindled.
“The second floor and the roof are a total loss, and the first floor has extensive smoke and water damage,” Zern said. “We had some problems putting out the fire. We could only access one side of the building and had to run hoses everywhere. We also had issues with water supply. At one point, we were using 5,000 gallons of water a minute. We also didn’t have enough local resources. We had to ask for help from fire departments near and far to help battle the fire.”
The fire was under control as of 5 a.m. Sunday, but fire personnel were still on the scene watching for hotspots throughout Sunday afternoon. The massive amounts of water used to fight the flames was evident from the pool of runoff that had formed in the courtyard of the apartment complex.
Zern said all residents were accounted for and that residents did not receive significant injuries. However, two firefighters were injured. Both were taken to Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital. One was released, the other was admitted and is still in the hospital.
“The fire is under control,” Zern said. “The state fire marshals are still conducting their investigation and doing interviews to determine what started the fire.”
Sycamore Deputy Police Chief Michael Anderson said Sunday afternoon the fire did not look suspicious.
Jim Mason of Mason Properties, which owns the St. Albans Green complex, said a tenant was using a grill on a second-floor balcony. Having a grill on the balcony is prohibited in tenant leases, Mason said.
“It flared up and it got into the soffit, and that was it, it was over,” he said.
Mason said that the 50,000-square-foot building was built in 1966 and his company had purchased it in 1994. Tenants who were displaced will be refunded rent money from the time of the fire or relocated to vacant apartments that Mason owns in DeKalb, he said.
Mason said he plans to build colonial-style town homes on the site of the destroyed building.
Many people told stories of losing their homes.
Daniel McDonald was at a birthday party in Chicago with his wife Nicolette and their 4-month-old daughter when he received a call from Sycamore police telling him about the fire. McDonald’s three sons were with family in Joliet.
“The news hit me like a ton of bricks,” McDonald said. “I raced home to see everything on fire, up in smoke. … I’m heartbroken. It’s a tragedy.”
In addition to losing clothing and furniture, McDonald said he lost his mother’s ashes in the fire and believes his cat, Bella, also perished. McDonald did not have renter’s insurance and said his family’s biggest need is for infant girl and toddler boy clothes.
“Everything we had has been destroyed, all our items and memories,” he said. “Now the question is, where do we go from here?”
Earnell Brown lived in the unit next door to where the fire started in Building A. He said he and his wife were watching a movie when they heard the smoke alarm go off in the hallway about 5:30 p.m. At first, he said they didn’t think it was real because they didn’t smell smoke.
“We opened the door and saw police coming up, telling us to get out, so we just ran out,” Brown said. “Our apartment is gone. I’m trying to figure out my next move. What do you do? All you can do is start over. Ain’t nothing to go back to.”
Whitney Wells lives in Building B, which survived the flames. She said she smelled smoke and then heard police banging on doors telling people to get out. As soon as she got outside, an explosion in Building A sent shards of glass flying everywhere.
“I started crying,” she said. “There were like five explosions. You could see the fire in windows, on the roof and in the AC units.”
School District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman worked with the American Red Cross Northeast Illinois Chapter to open up Southeast Elementary School across the street as an emergency shelter. McDonald and his family spent the night there, he said.
“Once the fire was identified and the Red Cross was notified, we were there in 15 minutes,” American Red Cross Shelter Manager Hank Welch said. “We are here to provide shelter, food, clothing, comfort and care to the residents displaced by the fire.”
Several Red Cross volunteers, who came from locations such as Morrison and Harvard, commented on how Sycamore citizens had supported their neighbors and the firefighters who came to their aid. Early Sunday, workers were collecting cases of bottled water that had been left on the street, and a kiddie pool filled with sports drinks and bottled water still sat at the corner of Locust and Lincoln streets.
Most of the apartment building’s displaced residents spent the night with family or friends. About five people spent the night at the Red Cross’ gymnasium shelter. Ryan Schroeder, who lived in Building A, said he slept in a lawn chair near the yellow tape authorities used to cordon off the property.
“I stuck around hoping somehow we’d get lucky, that our apartment would be OK,” he said. “I never thought the whole building would go up. But it’s a loss, everything is gone … Yesterday morning, I went to work and didn’t think anything of it, it was a normal day. Then I came home and watched my entire apartment building burn.
“My whole world turned upside down in a matter of hours. We lost everything.”
• Shaw Media’s Aimee Barrows contributed to this report.