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Elderly Couple Dead In West Garfield Park Fire

CHICAGO (CBS) -- An elderly man and woman considered fixtures in their community were found dead in a burning apartment building Tuesday morning in the West Garfield Park neighborhood.

Around 3:15 a.m., the Fire Department responded to a blaze at a two-story apartment building near Pulaski and Wilcox.

When firefighters entered the building, they found an elderly man and a woman unresponsive in the upstairs apartment. Aldonia and Louis White, both 90, were pronounced dead at the scene.

Aldonia and Louis White
Aldonia and Louis White (Photo supplied to CBS)

Deputy District Chief Chuck Maes said the fire appears to have started in the White's kitchen area, where Aldonia was found dead. Her husband was found in the dining room/living room area.

"Possibly, if there was working smoke detectors, it could have alerted them at the time, and they could have got out of the building before the fire escalated," he said.

Fire Department Deputy District Chief Jack Nagle said there were smoke detectors in the building, but they weren't working.

"Every time we have one of these tragedies, it seems to be the same thing. There's either no smoke detectors, or there's no batteries in there, and too soon to tell if it would have made a difference here, but generally it's always a possibility," Deputy District Chief Jack Nagle said.

A Fire Department spokesman said, based on evidence found at the scene, the fire might be suspicious. The Police Bomb and Arson Unit was investigating the cause of the fire.

Witnesses said they saw the blaze before the Fire Department arrived, and tried to help the elderly couple, but couldn't.

"We saw the fire through the gangway. It was busting the window through the gangway, and the fire was getting real big," Marcus Johnson said. "We tried to help them. We tried to get inside, but we couldn't do nothing."

Bernetta Sigler, who served as the couple's caretaker for the past four years, said when she left the home Monday night, the Whites were doing well.

"I'm just pretty devastated. It's unbelievable," she said. "They were great, loving people."

Sigler said Louis White was a military veteran who was no longer able to walk on his own. Neighbors said that would have made it difficult for him to escape the second-floor unit.

Despite his disability, Sigler said he never lost his sense of humor.

"Mr. White, he was always cracking jokes, and just being funny, and loved to sing," she said.

Aldonia White was a retired nurse who went from caring for patients to her husband, and in some sense the neighborhood.

"Mrs. White, she was always strong about kids getting education and staying off the streets, and just wanted everybody just to be good people," Sigler said.

Firefighters returned to the block around 10 a.m. to hand out free smoke detectors. It's something the department does after most fatal fires, in the hopes of driving home the point that 60 percent of fatal home fires happen in buildings with no smoke alarms or non-functional smoke alarms.

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