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Kenwood high-rise residents say they were advised to shelter in place while fire came dangerously close

Residents left horrified by deadly Kenwood high-rise fire
Residents left horrified by deadly Kenwood high-rise fire 02:16

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Dozens of people were forced from their homes because of a fire that also left two people dead and nine injured in a Kenwood neighborhood high-rise Wednesday.

CBS 2's Sabrina Franza spoke with those who were still trying Wednesday to figure out where to go.

At 6 p.m. with the fire out, debris littered the ground with destroyed apartments above. The now-empty apartments were charred from the outside in.

Meanwhile, tenants did not know when they would be able to get back into their home.

"There was smoke all over," said resident Oluyinka Bankole.  "I hardly could breathe."

While the fire was brought under control – tenants who lived in units torched by flames or flooded with water felt anything but in-control. 

For a while, the residents were just told to stay put while the fire was still blazing. We heard stories from tenants that they saw the fire climbing their window, felt the heat in their apartments, and smelled burning wood – and still, they were told to stay in their units.

The fire started on the 15th floor of the Harper Square Cooperative, 4850 S. Lake Park Ave., and climbed all the way to the 24th.

One of the tenants captured the flames on video as they made their way up. He did not know what to do as he was told not to move, but he saw the flames on the move – inching closer and closer to him.

The tenant who took the video did so at 10:42 a.m., just a few floors from where the fire began half an hour earlier. The tenant, who asked that we keep his name confidential, finally decided to leave the apartment – against what he says was management's direction.

Kenwood high-rise residents were to stay inside with fire climbing 01:52

He was not the only person making such a decision. Bankole lives in the building with her daughter – and was shocked to see the fire inching toward their home.

Emergency crews did say the high-rise building has fire-safe walls, which are supposed to keep tenants safe in their units. But the mother who saw the flames approaching, Oluyinka Bankole, was not taking that chance.

"When I saw fire - naked fire - with my own eyes, I had to run with my daughter," said Bankole. "Why would you tell us to stay in the house? I'm angry. My daughter and I kept calling. Why would she say we should stay in the house?"

Bankole said she called management repeatedly – asking what to do as the flames got closer.

"And I saw the fire in my room, and I called her again and she said they don't have directions for them to come out that we should stay in the room," she said, "but when I saw the fire, I had to come out."

By the time Bankole talked with CBS 2's Franza, she still had not been told what is next.

"Nobody saying anything to us," she said.

Kenwood high-rise residents say they saw fire out window 02:40

Some neighbors were also surprised with how the fire spread so rapidly as the wind whipped outside.

"We have sprinklers and everything, so I don't know how or why it could've spread like it did," said 25th floor resident Sheila Quinn.

We later learned the building does not have a completed sprinkler system – and since the structure was built before 1975, it is not required to have one. Some wonder if sprinklers could have helped get the fire under control quicker.    

Families watched from below as the fire rose.

"I wanted to panic mode I cried because I knew that was her building," said Latina Brown, whose mom lives in the building. "I said that's my mother's building."

Seconds felt like hours until Brown got in touch with her mom.

"We're just going to take her home with us," Brown said.

The American Red Cross was spotted at the scene trying to connect with tenants – some of whom had been in the building's party room since the fire was brought under control.

We also know the Office of Emergency Management and Communications is working to find shelter for anyone who is displaced.

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