Marina Galindo loads up her belongings into a U-Haul truck on Oct. 20 at The Gables apartment building at 8011 Edgewater Road, which was rendered uninhabitable by an Oct. 14 fire. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

With a mix of anger, anxiety, urgency and resignation, tenants made their way back last week to The Gables – the 44-unit apartment building at 8011 Edgewater Road in North Riverside rendered uninhabitable by an Oct. 14 fire – to collect what they could from their apartments.

Some already had leads on new places to live, but others were still seeking shelter with family or friends. Others had been living in hotels, unsure what their future accommodation would look like.

“I’ll be fine, but a lot of people aren’t,” said a tenant named Andy who had rented at The Gables for about 10 years and was clearing out his possessions on Oct. 19 when the Landmark visited the property. “People are literally refugees.”

By mid-week last week nearly all of the building’s tenants had come to collect their belongings, said Police Chief Christian Ehrenberg, whose officers were onsite all week, making sure tenants could safely remove as much as they could.

1 / 7

The initial plan had been to allow tenants back in to get essentials, like pets, medications, personal papers and the like. But it was clear early on that people did not want to leave any of their possessions behind once they’d signed documents and received their security deposits and a pro-rated amount of their October rent.

A portion of the receipt for that money asked tenants to sign a “mutual release,” saying they wouldn’t sue.

“I’m not signing nothing ‘til I get all my stuff out,” said Jeff Reid, who had lived in the building with his wife, April Garcia, for about three years. On Oct. 19 he was loading his possessions into a moving truck.

Tenants note lack of smoke detectors

Reid and Garcia, who lived in the complex’s west wing where the most substantial fire damage was located, had found temporary shelter at a hotel. He and his wife were asleep when the fire started. He was awakened by the sound of someone pounding on his door.

“I didn’t hear no smoke detectors, no nothing, just one of the tenants banging on my door, saying, ‘Fire, get out!’” Reid said. “I told my wife just ‘Let’s go!’ because I didn’t know where the fire was. I opened the door and saw smoke in the hallway. I had no shoes on – socks, shorts, a tank top.”

Non-functioning smoke detectors was a common theme as tenants recounted the night of the fire. 

A woman who lived in the south wing, who declined to give her name, said she only learned of the fire because she hadn’t fallen asleep yet and saw flashing lights outside the window.

“I noticed there was a lot of ambulances, then I heard screaming, so I thought there was someone getting into a fight,” she said. “Once I got up and I opened up the blinds I couldn’t see anything because of all the red lights. I opened the door to the room and that’s when I saw all the smoke and smelled all the smoke. It was inside our place.”

The woman grabbed her cat, her husband grabbed his wallet and keys, and they ran outside. The man then said he was worried about an elderly neighbor and went back inside with a police officer to make sure he got out.

“I went back in with [the police officer] and I did inhale some smoke. It was already bad at that time,” the man said.

A woman who lived in the west wing near the unit where the fire started, said she was lucky she and her 3-year-old daughter were alive. She happened to be in the kitchen of her apartment at around 11:45 p.m.

“I was awake, and I see that my apartment was filling with smoke from the back of the refrigerator,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “The fire alarms never pop up, so I’m very glad that I was awake and saw the smoke coming out.”

The woman said she ran out into the street and flagged down a police officer to alert him to the fire. There were no emergency lights in the stairwells, making them treacherously dark as people rushed to escape the building.

While she was able to reclaim some of her possessions, many things, particularly home electronics like her microwave oven, had sustained water damage.

“Who will pay this? Nobody,” she said. “Right now, we’re rescuing some furniture, clothes, but it’s very traumatic. 

“I’m almost homeless. I’m living with my aunt for a few days. At least I have family here. Some people are staying in a hotel, spending money they don’t have.”

The woman said she’d lived in the apartment building for about a year and described it as a bad experience.

“We always were having problems with the water; sometimes they pull the water for one whole day,” she said. “[There were] problems with the electricity, problems with rats, with animals, because all of the apartments have holes.”

Inspector calls for engineering reports

The Landmark requested two years of property maintenance and inspection records from the village of North Riverside, but received only a list of violations, mainly regarding overflowing dumpsters. There were also complaints of a broken water heater, a heating problem and no water due to a broken pipe.

A rental property registry instituted by the village this year was an attempt to get village inspectors into buildings like The Gables on a regular basis. Registry information was due to the village in November, so inspections could begin, said Village Administrator Sue Scarpiniti.

The village also provided the Landmark with a one-page report written immediately after the fire by its building inspector, who wrote that “the entire building on this property needs to be evaluated” by a structural engineer, an electrical engineer and a mechanical engineer.

“Severe damage was noted to the roof, parapet wall, chimney and the brick façade,” the village’s inspector wrote. “The electrical systems throughout the building are not functioning properly.”

BEDS Plus still offering assistance

BEDS Plus, the LaGrange-based nonprofit that provides services and shelter to the unhoused, continues to assist some of the families displaced by the fire.

Joann Boblick, the nonprofit’s stabilization services director, said on Oct. 25 that in addition to the 10 households BEDS Plus had been assisting over the past week, there were another five households they were attempting to assist getting paperwork completed.

BEDS Plus can provide those displaced by fires with money to pay for security deposits and help them identify new places to live. One family had already moved into a new apartment while three others were on the verge of moving in, Boblick said.

“We see a huge variety of people and situations,” said Boblick. “Some find places very quickly, but there’s a percentage of people who six months from now still don’t have a place to live.”

Boblick encouraged those needing assistance to call her at 708-354-0858, ext. 116. She also encouraged any landlords who are willing to open their units to those displaced by the fire to call the same number.

“We can definitely share vacancy information with those from North Riverside,” Boblick said.