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Deadly high-rise fire in Kenwood caused by "careless use of smoking materials"

Dozens of renters remain displaced after Kenwood high-rise fire
Dozens of renters remain displaced after Kenwood high-rise fire 02:08

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago Fire Department investigators have determined a deadly apartment building fire on Wednesday in Kenwood was caused by a careless smoker.

In a tweet Thursday afternoon, CFD officials said the Office of Fire Investigation concluded the cause of the fire at Harper Square Cooperative at 48th and Lake Park was "careless use of smoking materials that ignited combustibles in a bedroom," and the fire was deemed accidental.

A smoke detector in the apartment where the fire started was not working at the time, according to the Fire Department.

The Fire Department explained that the building has hardwired smoke detectors in common areas such as hallways. But each residential unit has battery-powered smoke detectors that are not connected to that system, and that must be installed and maintained by the unit owners. The detector in the unit where the fire started did not have a working battery, the Fire Department said.

One person was killed, and nine others were injured, including a firefighter, in an extra-alarm fire that spread to 10 floors of the 25-story apartment building on Wednesday afternoon.

Caution tape still surrounded part of the high-rise, and a building restoration team was on site Thursday morning, as many families waited to learn when they can go back to their homes.

Careless smoking blamed for Kenwood high-rise fire 01:52

Debris was seen falling to the ground as firefighters rushed into the building to put out the flames. At the same time, residents inside the building spotted flames climbing past their windows.

The fire started shortly after 10 a.m. on the 15th floor of the building, and gradually climbed up to the 24th floor.

Friends said a woman in her 80s, a retired school teacher, died in the fire. She lived on the 15th floor. Her name has not yet been released as authorities work to notify her family.

Her body was not found until after several other people already had been taken to the hospital. 

"They found an elderly woman deceased from smoke inhalation on the 15th floor - and that's the floor that my aunt stayed on - and I came back, because I wanted to check to see how she was doing, if she was okay, because I had been trying to call her phone and nobody had been able to reach her," said Jauntanne Mayes.

An autopsy on Thursday determined the woman died of thermal and inhalation injuries, and her death was ruled an accident.  

Chicago Fire Department officials said the building has 298 units, 267 of which were occupied at the time of the fire. A total of 133 units impacted by the fire, and more than 100 families were displaced.

A woman who lives in the building at 4850 S. Lake Park Ave. said it's divided into two parts; the east side and the west side. The west side is still intact so those who live there weren't affected by this fire, but those on the east side still can't get back to their homes, and it's not clear when they'll be allowed back in.

Building management still has not making a statement to us - telling CBS 2's Tara Molina on the phone, "We don't talk to reporters."

But decades-long resident Mary Gordon did talk to reporters.

She shared an email she received from management Thursday afternoon - telling residents like her, who are on the impacted side of the building, to come back to be escorted to their units to quickly pick up important items.

"Important items," as outlined in the email, include medicine, wallets or purses, keys, and "possibly a few clothing items."

Scanner Realtymort Com 20230126 123124 by Adam Harrington on Scribd

Gordon's unit sustained water damage, but she says not much else. 

"The water came in part of my front door, but that's it," Gordon said. 

She has plenty of questions.

"Can I get back to my place, and is it going to be safe?" Gordon said. "What am I going to do? Are we going to have to find a new place to live?"

Thankfully, Gordon is able to stay with family right now. There are lots of unanswered questions for her and others today as they figure out next steps. 

The Chicago Department of Buildings said Thursday: "Ultimately, the management company and Insurance company will determine how the residents will be allowed to get back inside their units.  As of last night, 133 units were impacted and unable to be occupied."

Cause of deadly high-rise fire under investigation 02:15

The building has a history of failed inspections, code violations, and another fire back in 2021.

Just last month, the building failed a city inspection, in which managers were ordered to test the fire alarm and evacuation system. It was the seventh failed inspection.

The last time the building passed an inspection was more than two years ago, in September 2020.

In February 2021, another fire at the building left two residents and a firefighter injured.

Residents of the building are getting help from the Red Cross and their renters' insurance companies. The office of Ald. Sophia King (4th) also said something is being organized for those who want to help them out.

When they share information on that plan, we will too. 

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