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Extra-Alarm Fire In Albany Park Destroys Twisted Hippo Brewery, Ultimate Ninjas Gym, Apartment Building

by Marissa Perlman, Marissa Parra, and Mugo Odigwe

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A massive fire early Monday morning in the Albany Park neighborhood destroyed two businesses and an apartment building, injuring one person and leaving several others homeless.

More than 150 firefighters responded to the blaze at the corner of Montrose Avenue and Richmond Street.

The fire started around 3:30 a.m. and swept through a three-story apartment building at 4337-39 N. Richmond St. It spread to the neighboring building at the southeast corner of Richmond Street and Montrose Avenue - which housed Twisted Hippo Taproom and Eatery, and Ultimate Ninjas gym.

Late Monday, the Fire Department said the point of origin for the fire appeared to be in a gangway between the two buildings. The gangway had two sets of exterior stairs and the fire was believed to have started under one of them.

The fire burned for several hours as firefighters worked to contain the flames. Neighbors reported hearing explosions.

"I heard something that sounded like a bomb around 4 o'clock," said Meredith McCluskey.

Five hours after the fire started, firefighters were still pouring water on the building from above and below, calling it a "surround and drown" tactic, but crews had to be careful to stay away because of the danger.

"The building itself is a one-story truss roof. To us, it is the most dangerous type of building to fight. So precautions are taken, collapse zones are set up," said Chicago Fire Department Deputy District Chief Thomas Carbonneau.

Several cars were left buried under rubble after part of the roof and a large section of the rear wall of the Twisted Hippo collapsed.

Late Monday afternoon, it was still not confirmed where the fire started. But the damage at the scene hours later showed just how fast the fire spread.

Five people were left without a home because of the fire at the apartment building, and what was left of the neighboring building that housed the two businesses will need to be torn down.

Marilee Rutherford, the owner of the Twisted Hippo Brewery, which is now in rubble, spoke earlier to CBS 2's Marissa Parra as she watched her business continue to burn.

She said she was given the news by her husband, who was called by a community member overnight. When she arrived on the scene, her business engulfed in flames. She said the cause of the explosions might have been the CO2 and nitrogen tanks used for dispensing draft beer.

"We have CO2 and nitrogen tanks, just as a regular part of our business, and I'm certain that's what the explosions were," Rutherford said.

She said her focus is on the safety of her staff and the community.

"It's hard to see everything you worked for go up in flames, but I'm just glad my staff and everyone is okay. That's all I'm focused on," Rutherford said.

The brewery opened in 2019, and Rutherford said the goal was to create a "light, bright, warm, and inviting space, with a little bit of something for everyone" in the community.

"I think we have done that, but we'll just have to see how we move forward," she said.

The Illinois Craft Brewers Guild has set up a GoFundMe page to help the Twisted Hippo and their staff with recovery costs. The page has already raised more than $77,000 towards its $100,000 goal in just the first four hours since it was set up.

The destruction of Ultimate Ninjas is also a big loss for the community. It's been around for years, and does a lot of work with children.

"It was a big part of the community for the whole family," said Kyle McCluskey.

Ultimate Ninjas had camps scheduled for Monday, and were expecting 90 kids to show up, but now both the gym and Twisted Hippo are both a total loss.

"Just honestly trying to process, you know, the community we created at the gym," said Ultimate Ninjas owner Jeff Piejak. "It's not normal that a business can bring so many people under the same roof."

Ultimate Ninjas owner Jeff Piejak called it terrible timing for both his business and Twisted Hippo.

"That's the sad part is we really brought a lot of life to this area, and it really needed it. You know, Albany Park really kind of needed something like this to come and fill the neighborhood full of kids," Piejak said. "It's not going to be easy to find a similar location, but yeah, we'll be back."

Fire Department officials said the fire was struck out around 8:30 a.m., but crews would remain on the scene for several hours to douse hotspots, and prevent the fire from flaring up again. The rest of the building that housed the brewery and gym also will need to be demolished. The neighboring apartment building also was gutted.

The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago is issuing hotel vouchers to help the nine families displaced from the apartment building.

The massive fire also affected hundreds of neighbors, as ComEd had to cut off power to about 350 homes and businesses so firefighters could safely fight the fire. Power has since been restored for 228 ComEd customers, and ComEd is waiting for the green light from the Fire Department to restore power to the rest.

Paris Wadhwa said he has been without power and heat since around 4 a.m.

"I have a baby, and a little girl, we're trying to them in the house, and making sure that they are warm," he said. "The cooking gas is working, so that's a good thing, but there's no heat and no electricity. So we're hoping that the power comes back on."

Wadhwa said he was told power should be restored by 12:30 p.m., but he's really hoping it will be back sooner.

Police said a 60-year-old man was taken to a local hospital for possible smoke inhalation. Several other residents of the apartment building were able to escape safely.

Many showed up as the final flames were put out – vowing to help those who suffered losses.

"It has been beautiful to see the outpour of love and support from the community," said Ald. Rossana Rodriguez (33rd).

The cause of the fire remained under investigation late Monday. The Office of Fire Investigations continued to work on it Monday night.

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