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Elderly woman dead, 150 families homeless after fire sweeps through condo building in Calumet City

Elderly woman dead, 150 families homeless after Calumet City condo fire
Elderly woman dead, 150 families homeless after Calumet City condo fire 02:25

CALUMET CITY, Ill. (CBS) -- A condo building fire in south suburban Calumet City Monday night turned out to be even more devastating than first believed.

An 85-year-old woman died, and several other people needed rescuing, after the fire ripped through the building.

The blaze left 150 families homeless, according to Jaclyn Saucier, president of the Park of River Oaks Condo Association.

The fire broke out around 7 p.m. Monday on the second floor of the 312-unit condo complex at 200 Park Ave. in Calumet City. Winds drove the flames all the way to the seventh floor, fire officials confirmed. 

There was a massive response at the building, with several dozen fire trucks on the scene and fire crews applied water to a smoldering unit in the seven-story building. Several people had to be rescued using ladder trucks.

Not only were firefighters battling intense wind, but the building has limited sprinklers, as it was built before those were required.

The Calumet City Fire Department confirmed Monday a female resident died after suffering injuries on the seventh floor. The Cook County Medical Examiner's office has identified the victim as 85-year-old Wilhelmina Williamson.

Woman dies in fire at Calumet City condo building 02:32

During the response, the fire was quickly upgraded to a three-alarm response for additional equipment and manpower – in part because of the intensity of the flames, and also because the building is part of a massive condo association with a large group of seven-story buildings.

Officials said a total of 80 people were displaced. At least six people were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, including three residents and three firefighters. 

"I was out last night, and I saw as the firefighters were breaking through windows; the families that were affected, by how they were crying, and how it impacted them, because they just lost everything in this fire," said Calumet City Mayor Thaddeus Jones, who is also an Illinois state representative.

Fire sweeps through condo building in Calumet City 02:33

CBS 2's Dana Kozlov spoke to one resident who got out very safely very early on when the smoke alarms started going off. She said she understands the fire might have started with somebody barbecuing in the back of 200 Park Ave.

The resident said there might have been some sort of propane flare-up or explosion, and the back of the building just ignited. Officials said it was a wind-driven fire. 

"We took the stairs down and we went to the back, and we saw the one tier just ablaze – just ablaze," said Shaunessye Curry. "My heart started racing, because the embers from the flames were blowing. The wind was much higher than what it is now. The embers were blowing, and they actually started catching onto other units that were neighboring."

A day later, many people returned to pick up their belongings Tuesday - and saw even more devastation inside.

"It looked like something off a movie – like a horror movie," said Shanekqua Williamson.

It was so unbelievable that Williamson had to pull out her phone and record.

"It's puddles everywhere. It's dark. It looked abandoned," she said. "Everything is burnt. It still smells like fire up there."

Williamson and her grandmother lived on the fourth floor of the 200 building at Park of River Oaks. Now, they are homeless - along with dozens of others.

Also left homeless was a woman who wanted to be called Ms. Jones. She escaped from inside her unit on the fifth floor as that fire started the evening of Memorial Day.

"Everything in my unit is destroyed," Ms. Jones said.

She was one of the first to pull a fire alarm after watching flames ignite on the balcony of a condo below her on the second floor.

"Started banging on the doors - 'Get out, get out, there's a fire!' and this is all I have," Ms. Jones said.

But she does have her life.

150 families left homeless after Calumet City condo building fire 02:05

The woman who died, Wilhelmina Williamson, lived on the seventh floor and was killed as the wind shot flames upward.

Most residents we spoke to didn't know Ms. Williamson, but are still hurting.

"There's not a lot of interaction except at holiday parties and things like that, but we just go about our business," said Bernice Everhart.

The cause of the fire is currently under investigation, but officials believe it was accidental.

"They said that someone was barbecuing on the second floor, and the propane tank burst and went up," Curry said Monday night.

"We were told that by the residents, and we are looking at all avenues for the fire investigation. Again, it's is still under investigation," said Calumet City Fire Chief Glenn Bachert.

Officials said most of the units on the seventh floor are completely uninhabitable after the fire.

Like many residents, Everhart is staying at a hotel for now - trying to arrange with insurance as to what the next days, months, or even years will look like. 

"Have to rent someplace," she said. "The fireman who took up upstairs says this will take a couple of years to repair."

Everhart has lived in the building since 1994 and called Park of River Oaks a "great place to live" complete with a golf course. She also called the destruction from the fire "devastating to see."  

The American Red Cross said they're providing food, shelter, and clothes to anyone in the building who needs them. They're also helping people get prescriptions filled if necessary. The Red Cross said, as of Tuesday morning, they have provided assistance to approximately 50-75 people.

Anyone who lived in the building who needs assistance from the Red Cross can call 877-597-0747.

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