CHICAGO — Four girls younger than 6 whom neighbors described as “happy kids” died in a residential blaze Wednesday morning in suburban Des Plaines that also killed a 25-year-old woman, fire officials said.
The fire started about 10:15 a.m. The dead include four girls, all of whom share the same last name, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. The 25-year-old woman, of the same address as the girls, also died.
Renata Espinosa, 6; Genesis Espinosa, 5; Allizon Espinosa, 3; Grace Espinosa, 1; and Citahaly Zamiodo, 25, died in the fire, the medical examiner’s office and fire officials said.
“It is a sad day,” Des Plaines Fire Chief Daniel Anderson said at a news conference at the scene early Wednesday afternoon. “This is a terrible day … a tragic day.”
Pabel Marrero, 52, was in bed Wednesday morning when he smelled the faint scent of smoke, “like burned plastic.”
He began getting dressed when he heard a loud knocking on the home’s front door. A stranger was simultaneously calling 911 while pounding and yelling, “You need to get out. Your house is on fire!”
“I looked to the side, and there’s smoke coming out on the east side of the house,” Marrero said, shaking a bit from the cold weather.
Marrero said the house is divided into several apartments; he lives on the first floor, and the victims, a family with four small children, live in the upstairs apartment.
Police arrived at the scene quickly, he recalled, but authorities initially struggled to get to the upstairs apartment because the door leading to it was locked. Fire personnel arrived shortly after, Marrero said.
“At that point there’s not only smoke, there’s also fire,” he said. “You can see fire.”
The scene the firefighters encountered was a “very hectic, rapidly evolving situation,” Anderson said.
There was “heavy smoke coming from the second floor,” and firefighters learned there were people still inside the two-story, duplex-type apartment building. Although the frame building, which is more than 100 years old, appears to be a single-family home from the outside, Cook County records show it has four apartments.
Crews “immediately went into search-and-rescue” and fire suppression mode, Anderson said.
“Unfortunately … during our attempts … we located and recovered five victims,” he said.
Marrero believes her husband, the father of the children, had been at work during the blaze.
Marrero said he had just heard the children upstairs earlier in the morning.
When asked where he’ll stay Wednesday night, Marreo said he didn’t know and kept repeating, “the kids, the kids.”
“I am numb,” he said, tearing up. “The kids.”
“It’s the most difficult scene I’ve responded to,” Anderson said in a statement later emailed from the city of Des Plaines.
The children were pronounced dead at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, while the woman was pronounced dead at the scene.
One firefighter and one police officer suffered minor injuries and were checked out at local hospitals.
The state fire marshal was on the scene assisting investigators. The cause of the blaze was not known.
(Chicago Tribune reporter Madeline Buckley contributed.)