Just what sparked the fire on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving that decimated Delia’s Kitchen, 1034 Lake St., and the apartments above the restaurant, remains unknown, according to the Oak Park Fire Department.
“We’ve concluded our investigation and it’s undetermined at this point,” said Oak Park Fire Chief Ron Kobyleski, who added the building’s insurance company would likely conduct its own investigation into the fire.
The fire department investigation found that the blaze originated in the rear of the building on the ground floor in the trash area underneath the grease duct. Once ignited, the fire consumed the enclosed back porch, made entirely of wood, as well as the timber floors, roof and frame of the entire building, according to Kobyleski.
Brianna Bailey, who lived in one of the three upstairs apartments, was awakened by the building’s fire alarm and strong stench of smoke about 9:30 a.m. the morning of the fire. She immediately got out of bed and woke up her brother, who was visiting. Bailey told Wednesday Journal she could hear the fire roaring.
“It almost sounded like a mega-bonfire,” she said.
She then called 911 to report the fire and was directed to leave the building straightaway. Within a minute and a half of her calling, Bailey said, firefighters were on the scene.
In a moment of quick thinking, she snatched her purse, thinking she would need her license as identification. Everything else was left behind.
“I couldn’t even grab my car keys, and I guess it didn’t matter anyway because my car was in the back of the building, so it was also affected by the fire,” she said.
While exiting, Bailey saw that the white door to the building’s back stairwell was “pitch black,” which caused her immediately to panic that her neighbor Jose Esparsa was still in his apartment. She began banging on the walls to try to alert him, but he was fortunately not in the building.
“Thank God he wasn’t because, I believe at that point, his apartment was already up in flames,” she said.
She and her brother were able to safely evacuate the building. Once she opened the building’s front door, she saw firefighters crawling on the ground, trying to help them evacuate. Bailey feels lucky that she and her brother are alive.
The fire department also evacuated others from Delia’s Kitchen and the nail salon next door, as well as neighboring businesses. The surrounding blocks of Lake Street were also closed to traffic.
While it only took a short time for the flames to engulf the three-story building — Bailey compared it to striking a match — it took over two hours for the fire to be extinguished. The entire Oak Park Fire Department, including the chief, was on hand fighting the fire.
“Everyone performed above expectation,” said Kobyleski.
Fire departments from Bellwood, Berwyn, Cicero, Elmwood Park, Forest Park, Franklin Park, Maywood, Melrose Park, North Riverside, River Forest, River Grove and Stickney all turned out to assist in the effort. At the height of the incident, 75 firefighters were on the scene, according to the village of Oak Park.
“I hope people understand just how great a job the fire department did keeping that fire contained, given the proximity of so many important buildings in our downtown business district, including the iconic Lake Theatre,” said Oak Park spokesman David Powers. “It speaks to their expertise and experience and underscores the importance of our mutual aid relationships with neighboring communities.”
No civilians were hurt in the fire — an outcome that very much pleased the fire chief. Only one firefighter was injured, and that was minor. According to Kobyleski, the firefighter threw out his back, which can easily happen when battling fires.
“You’re wearing a lot of equipment; you’re pulling hoses over uneven, slippery ground,” the chief explained.
While the damage from the fire, as well as from the water used to extinguish it, caused significant damage to the building and ruined all the furnishings inside of it, Kobyleski believes the building will be salvageable.
However, it is unclear if the building’s displaced tenants will choose to return. Bailey is staying with her brother in Chicago, while Esparsa is bunking with friends. The building’s third apartment was undergoing renovation at the time of the fire, so was empty. Esparsa told the Journal he lost everything in the fire.
“I have to start all over again,” he said. “People are helping me little by little with clothes and a little money.”
Veronica Ciobotaru, the owner of Delia’s Kitchen, is working to find her staff new employment. She hopes her restaurant will reopen. For now, she is grieving.
“I just lost the love of my life,” said Ciobotaru, who was not at Delia’s Kitchen during the fire.
Joyce Webster, whom Ciobotaru called a personal friend and a friend to the restaurant, started a GoFundMe campaign to support Delia’s Kitchen. So far, the crowdfunding effort has amassed $29,200 of its $30,000 goal. The outpouring of support for her and her restaurant has been a source of comfort for Ciobotaru.
“I had no idea that there’s so many people who love Delia’s Kitchen,” she said. “The community is amazing.”
The kindness of the community has also been overwhelming for Bailey, who said she has been asking those who have reached out to her to help Esparsa as well.
“He’s just been the greatest neighbor I could ask for,” she said. “He also needs to be taken care of.”
Multiple people in Oak Park invited her to spend Thanksgiving with them, so she would not be alone on the holiday. The GoFundMe campaign created for Bailey is only $860 away from reaching its $5,000 goal.
“It’s just been such a blessing,” Bailey said. “I really can’t grasp the generosity of people.”