Thursday, April 13, 2023

Flashback 1993: "People screamed for help, clinging to ledges"

Sun-Times file photo
      This Sunday the Sun-Times is running the latest in my periodic series on the paper's 75th anniversary. It's how we covered fires and disasters, and touches upon the Paxton Hotel fire, 30 years ago last month. This is the story I wrote from the scene.

     There were faces at every window. 
     When Tower Ladder No. 10 pulled up to the raging fire at the Paxton Hotel just after 4 a.m. Tuesday, firefighters at first couldn't take the time to try to fight the fire. The windows of the Paxton were filled with people, screaming for help. Some were clinging to the ledges. 
      "We used the tower ladder basket, just scraped along the side of the building, took the people in, then brought them in and laid them down on the ground and went back up for more," said Raymond Hoff, the company captain. 
     In order to set up their ladders, firefighters had to step over the bodies of those who had already jumped. One man knotted several sheets together and lowered himself down, falling the last few feet and hurting his elbow. Some first threw mattresses out in an attempt to break their falls. 
     Many were hurt critically, including 22-year-old Leslie Matthews, who jumped from an upper floor with her 4-month-old baby, Jalesa, cradled in her arms. The baby was not hurt. 
     Firefighters raced to cut the burglar bars that trapped some residents in ground-floor apartments. Del Clark, a longtime Chicago radio newscaster, was trapped in his apartment at the back of the hotel. He sat at his barred window, shouting to the firefighters, but they couldn't hear him over the noise. Finally he thrust his arms through the bars and, waving them frantically, caught the attention of firefighters, and was saved. 
      The uninjured who were displaced by the fire — some naked, others weeping, some without shoes, others in their underwear — were comforted by Red Cross workers, who guided them to an out-of-service CTA bus, pressed into duty as a temporary shelter. 
      "I was supposed to move in two weeks," said resident Terry Zeszut, 46, who lost everything he owned. "I have to call the movers and cancel." 
      Zeszut was among several residents who simply stood on the sidewalk, grimacing in the early morning cold and drizzle, wrapped in thin blue Red Cross blankets, watching. Many of the 130 residents of the hotel were elderly, some wheelchair-bound, and they stared out from behind oxygen masks, dazed and wide-eyed with shock. 
      From across the street, they were viewed by the well-heeled residents of area condominiums, along with early-morning dog-walkers, who stepped out of their buildings to watch the fire. High winds stoked the fire, forcing it through the roof, which pancaked onto the floors below. 
     At 8:30 a.m., more than four hours after firefighters first arrived, tongues of orange flame shot 10 feet out of one corner of the building, and four aerial towers shot huge streams of water into the building. Dirty water came flooding out the front door. Burning embers soared over the street, and nearby cars were smeared with soot. 
     At times, the smoke on La Salle became so thick that only the emergency lights on the fire trucks, pulsing and strobing and cycling back and forth, could be seen through the blinding brownish-yellow haze. The smoke set off alarms at nearby buildings, where silhouettes of the curious could be seen, watching the blaze from high above. 
      The roofless brick shell of the Paxton Hotel, with its ornate yellow facade and quaint urns rimming the top, did not collapse, however. As the fire was gradually brought under control, firefighters used axes and gaffs to break out the window frames to allow litters to be brought in to carry out the bodies. A police squadrol pulled up close to the front of the hotel, forming a discreet shield with a ladder truck. A policeman began pulling on white rubber gloves. 
      Contributing: Tom Seibel, Dan Lehmann

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times,  March 17, 1993 


  1. Very powerful stuff.

    When I was a newspaper reporter, I always found disasters like this among the most challenging things to cover. This is a superb example of such coverage. Kudos.

  2. A chilling and accurate account of scenes faced daily on the frontlines of fire, emergency, and police services everywhere. Takes a toll…

  3. Replies
    1. Del Clark lived until age 90, dying of natural causes in June, 2022.

      One hopes many more lived.

  4. I rode past that place countless times, both as a kid and as an adult. In the mid-70s, I was drinking in a bar on Division Street. Thick smoke poured in. An apartment building on La Salle had been torched. I got there in just in time to see a couple of blackened bodies being carried out on stretchers. Uncovered...and unrecognizable.

    I turned around, went right back to the bar, and proceeded to get so drunk that I couldn't see straight. Somehow, I caught a train home at closing time. That was the night I finally realized that I could never have made it as a street reporter.

  5. This is the fire where Pam Robinson died and now was reborn as a boy named Luke. Around 17 years later it’s in Dr. tuckers book too


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