CHICAGO — Eight children were killed when a fire broke out before dawn Sunday in one of the deadliest fires in the city in years, officials said.
"We have not had this in many, many, many years — this amount of fatalities and injuries in one location," Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago said.
Marcos Contreras wasn't home, but he said there was a sleepover in a second floor unit of a coach house on the 2200 block of South Sacramento Saturday night, where older siblings were watching over the younger ones.
At some point during the night, at least two buildings caught fire. A woman returning home from work noticed the blaze in the building and alerted people so they could escape, Santiago said. She called 911 around 4 a.m., then began knocking on doors.
"So the female who did that saved a lot of lives," Santiago said.
Video from the scene shows smoke coming from windows of the three-story building's stone facade, with flames engulfing the back. Police officers helped push a stretcher toward an ambulance, while a paramedic simultaneously performed CPR. One woman lay on a street crying while someone tried to comfort her.
Officials and family members say eight children were killed in the blaze, and two teens remain on life support. The fire was put out just after 5 a.m., fire department officials said. At least one firefighter was injured and was hospitalized in good condition.
According to family members, the victims include: three-month-old Maya Almaraz, Ariel Garcia, age five, Lonni Ayala, age three, Gialonni Ayala, age five, Xavier Contreras, age 11, Nathan Contreras, age 13, Giovanni Ayala, age 10, and Victor Mendoza, age 16. The teens on life support are Adrian Hernandez, 14, and Cesar Contreras, 14.
Now Marcos Contreras is dealing with the unbearable loss of four of his siblings.
"Our babies are gone there's nothing we can do," Contreras said. "I don't even have words to explain the pain I'm feeling right now, it feels like my whole world is crashing."
Grandmother Ramonita Reyes said she didn't know what to say in the wake of such a loss.
"This is a tragedy beyond anything I ever dreamed of in my life," Reyes said. "We just have to put our faith in God watches over the rest of our family the ones we have left."
A makeshift memorial along a nearby sidewalk included crosses for each child who died, a small Mickey Mouse doll set next to one. The Rev. Clifford Spears of Saint Michael Missionary Baptist Church led a crowd that gathered in prayer, the Chicago Tribune reported. A candlelight vigil is planned for Sunday night.
Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Merritt said investigators have not found smoke detectors in the building.
The American Red Cross planned to work with the Chicago Fire Department to canvass the neighborhood to ensure homes have functional smoke alarms installed, the CEO of the Chicago & Northern Illinois Red Cross, Celena Roldan, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.