The 38-unit apartment building at 227 South Blvd. will not have to be demolished as a result of the fire that broke out two days before Christmas. Oak Park Apartments, the rental agency that owns the building, intends to have the structure restored, hopefully within the next six months.
“I think it would be reasonable to be done in that time,” said the agency’s president, Bill Planek, who said that seven of the units were completely destroyed.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but it has been determined that the blaze started in an unoccupied business space on the building’s first floor, according to Oak Park spokesperson Dan Yopchick.
Oak Park firefighters arrived onsite at 12:23 a.m., Dec. 23, and found visible smoke coming from the vacant storefront. The flames then reportedly spread through the walls up to the building’s second- and third-floors residences and moved to surrounding units. All tenants were safely evacuated.
Firefighters were out battling the blaze in below-freezing temperatures, while the Red Cross helped keep displaced tenants safe from the cold. The nearby Oak Park Public Works Center was used as a warming shelter for crews and residents, prior to smoke infiltrating the facility. The Oak Park police, and the village’s streets, fleet and water divisions assisted during those morning hours, according to Yopchick.
The fire was deemed under control by 3:30 a.m., with the help of fire crews from neighboring municipalities Berwyn, Cicero, Forest Park, North Riverside, Franklin Park, Broadview, Stickney and Elmwood Park.
Planek praised the fire department for their “heroic job” in protecting the building and those who lived inside it, as well as their speedy arrival. One tenant told Planek she had barely hung up after calling the fire department when she saw a fire engine outside the building.
“It was very, very commendable,” Planek said.
Only one person, an Oak Park firefighter, was hurt and the injury sustained was minor. The affected firefighter has returned to full duty after receiving treatment at Loyola University Medical Center.
“For a terrible situation, we got a lot of breaks that kept it from becoming a really horrible situation,” said Planek.
The building was designed to withhold fire, which helped in preventing it from spreading to other parts of the building, according to Planek. The walls, 14 inches thick, are brick, all the way from the basement to the roof.
The building has sections that Planek called “stacks,” which are self-contained by firewalls and have their own separate entrances with two apartments on each floor.
“The only reason fire spread to other sides is it went up into the roof,” Planek explained.
In total, 36 units were impacted by the fire with varying degrees of water and smoke damage. Seven were completely wrecked. The building’s utilities were turned back on by noon that day, which prevented the building from completely freezing up. That would have caused further damage.
All of the tenants have found temporary housing and most had rental insurance. Many of the units in the building were occupied by college students who had already gone home for the holidays when the fire broke out, according to Planek, who said his agency is returning the security deposits and rent payments to each of the building’s residents. Oak Park Apartments staff is also trying to relocate tenants who have been displaced.
“Everyone seems to be managing the crisis pretty well,” said Planek. “They know nobody wanted this to happen.”