At least 15 people died and another 30 were injured Tuesday in an early morning fire that raced up stairways in a hotel for transients that housed about 130 people near this city's downtown. By evening, 15 residents were still unaccounted for, fire authorities said.
Neighbors of the yellow-brick Paxton Hotel woke to screams soon after the blaze began about 4 a.m. Dense black smoke cascading through the hotel's halls forced scores of residents to windows for gulps of air.
One man shinnied down an improvised ladder of sheets to escape, while others crept along window ledges or even hung, shaking, by their fingers until firefighters could rescue them. Two people reportedly leaped to their deaths, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Mike Cosgrove said.
The four-story building in the gentrifying Old Town district was apparently ill-equipped for such an emergency.
Fire doors taken down in the process of laying down new carpet several months ago were never reinstalled, said Dennis Green, a resident for the past year. Side and back emergency exits were locked, apparently as a security measure, and bars on first-floor windows could not be opened from inside.
There was no sprinkler system, but none was legally required.
When the Paxton was last inspected in November, 1992, it met city safety codes, said Noelle Glassney, deputy press secretary to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. "The main complaint then was roaches," she said.
Building Commissioner Daniel W. Weil said the mayor has asked him and the city fire commissioner to review the city's requirements. Weil said he's interested in determining whether sprinkler or alarm systems "would have made a difference in this tragedy," and also the financial impact of such systems. "The people in these hotels generally have very low income levels," he said.
"What makes this such a tragedy is that the inexpensive housing stock is so reduced. Every room is needed," said Walter Jones, executive director of the Lawson House YMCA, where 25 of the Paxton victims received temporary shelter. "These people don't make much money and they have to be downtown where they can walk to work."
The fire started somewhere in the rear of the first floor. Local television stations reported that a wheelchair-bound resident had been manipulating wires in an electric heater that burst into flame. "Unofficially, we believe that's the cause," though an investigation is continuing, said Chicago Police Officer Patrick Camden, a department spokesman.
"If it wasn't for me getting up to use the washroom, I would probably be on the slab," said Green, an unemployed janitor.