Chicago Tenement Tragedy Claims 18 Lives
Chicago added another tragedy to its list of fatal fires on Sept. 7th, when a 63-year-old tenement burned, leaving 18 dead—five women, four men and nine children, all negroes.
They were among the 150 or more persons reported to have been in the building at the time the fire flashed through the old four-story brick structure at 3616 S. State Street. Fourteen of the bodies were found in the front portion of the building: 11 on the third floor, one on the fourth, and two on the second. Nine of the bodies were found in one room of a third floor apartment rented by one of the dead tenants. Because of the lax method of record keeping, and the fact that space in many of the 18 apartments was sublet by tenants, it was difficult for authorities to check accurately on the number of occupants and casualties.
The building, of brick joist construction typical of its time, fronted 25 ft. on S. State Street and extended 125 ft. to an alley. According to press reports, a city building department spokesman said the building was inspected Sept. 24, 1952, and no violations were reported at that time.
The fire began about 2:00 A.M., Monday the 7th, apparently in an apartment behind Alma’s Tavern, a saloon on the ground floor of the building. Fire Capt.-Inspector Frank L. Hasnerl said it swept up the stairway of the old building and through air shafts to the adjacent structures, a four-story building at 3618 S. State constructed in 1890 to the south of the burned building, and a three-story brick joist structure to the north at 3614, which extended 60 feet from the street. Both these buildings were damaged, the one at 3614 the least seriously.
It was the old story of tenents awakened out of a sound sleep, choking with smoke, to struggle through dark halls in a desperate effort to find escape. Nearly 300 tenants in the three tenements fled the buildings but at least 18 failed to make it. Many leaped from upper floors. Some jumped from the lower level of a fire escape when the drop ladder did not operate. Later, it was said, someone untied a chain and it swung to the ground.
Three persons who lived in the apartments behind the saloon—a man and his wife, and a porter who worked in the saloon—were taken by police for questioning on the cause of the fast spreading blaze. Police learned that illegal wiring had been done in the building and that this caused a fire only the week before. Actual cause of the second fire was not immediately determined, however.
Fire, health and other code violations have been filed against more than 20 buildings operated by the real estate firm of A. E. Gordon & Sons, which operated the tenements. This firm was named by a Chicago paper as one of the city’s principal slum operators. The firm denied there were reported violations against the 3616 building. The actual owner of the property is a woman who lives in California.
The building wherein the lives were lost had no central boiler for heat or hot water. Tenants heated their apartments with gas or oil burners. The structures are on a site marked for early clearing by the Chicago Housing Authority.
Chief Fire Marshal John Haberkorn said he thought a small fire may have burned for some time in the apartment where the fire reportedly originated. By the time firemen reached the scene, he said, the flames had carried up a rear stairway to the roof and within 20 minutes the rear portion of the building collapsed. The heat and smoke were so intense when firemen arrived, Haberkorn said, that firemen could enter only the front portion, and then only for a short time. Many tenants managed to reach the two ladder-type fire escapes on the front wall and were assisted down them by firemen. The rear stairway was the only means of exit in that section of the building. A few persons jumped from upper floors to a porch roof of the adjoining building on the north. One man jumped from a third story and crashed through the roof of a shanty behind the 3614 address. Four persons among those who escaped received serious injuries, mostly broken bones. Many others were less seriouslyhurt.
It took firefighters, responding on multiple alarms, two hours to control the flames. Search for bodies was continued in the wreckage after it had been cooled and power shovels were secured. The glare of the fire and the broadcasting of the disaster, brought some 5,000 to 6,000 curiosity seekers to the scene, giving police trouble in controlling the crowds and traffic, and clearing the way for fire and emergency vehicles.
Loss was estimated at approximately $75,000.