ALBANY PARK — Albany Park residents are reeling after an extra-alarm destroyed two beloved neighborhood businesses and left several people without homes Monday.
The fire broke out about 3:30 a.m. in a multi-unit residential building in the 4300 block of North Richmond, according to the Chicago Fire Department. Neighbors and witnesses said the fire started in a three-story building on the corner, 4337-39 N. Richmond St., and quickly spread to the Twisted Hippo brewpub, 2925 W. Montrose Ave. and the Ultimate Ninjas Gym.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Fire officials said the buildings housing the gym and brewery must be demolished.
Neighbors reported hearing explosions in the brewery as the fire raged inside. One side of the building collapsed, dropping bricks atop parked cars and crushing them.
A 60-year-old man suffering from smoke inhalation was taken to Swedish Hospital in serious-to-critical condition, according to the Fire Department. No other injuries were reported.
Resident Joe Bradtke said the fire started in a building owned by landlord Gary Carlson that neighbors the brewery. Carlson owns at least 60 buildings with more than 500 apartments in and around Albany Park and Irving Park, according to a 2016 investigation by the Sun-Times and the Better Government Association.
Carlson’s buildings have logged hundreds of code violations over the years and more recently have been the sites of deadly shootings and other issues.
Bradtke said residents of Carlson’s building were known for partying, drug use and throwing trash onto the roof of his building.
State Rep. Jaime Andrade also believed the fire started in the building owned by Carlson.
“You had a bad feeling that something was going to happen with that building … and it did,” he said.
Monday night, however, the Fire Department tweeted that the fire’s “point of origin appears to be between the commercial and residential building… Gangway has two stair sets. Fire appears to have started under one.”
Fire officials did not respond to multiple requests for further comment or clarification, but the apartment building has two sets of stairs out back.
Andrade said Carlson’s properties have been an issue in the neighborhood and the landlord is currently tied up in court cases regarding these issues.
When reached by Block Club, Carlson said he’s owned the building on Richmond since 2006 and it included 21 apartments, though three were vacant.
“I’m sorry it happened and my sincerest apologies to those affected,” he said.
While Carlson denies the fire started in his building, he also said his employees had notified him Jan. 28 that someone had set fire to a dumpster in the alley behind the property.
“I have a garbage crew that goes around to my buildings,” Carlson said. “It could have been a firebug, I don’t know.”
Ricardo A. Leach, who has lived in Carlson’s building for 13 years, said he was on the second floor when he woke up to the fire around 3:15 a.m. and fled out the rear of the apartment building into the alley.
“The smoke and the heat were strong and as soon as I realized I was breathing smoke I got out,” Leach said in Spanish.
Leach said he didn’t know how Monday’s fire started. He and another resident were figuring out what they were going to do for housing since the building was so severely damaged by fire.
Red Cross volunteers were on the scene Monday afternoon working to help seven displaced people across nine households find alternative housing, Red Cross spokeswoman Holly Baker said.
Albany Park resident Brian Pudil said he woke to shouting and went to his living room to see an orange hue from the huge blaze across the street. He saw the fire starting to spread to Twisted Hippo and within 30 minutes heard explosions and saw the side of the building collapse, crushing cars on Richmond Avenue.
About 150 firefighters were on the scene battling the blaze, according to the fire department. Crews had the fire under control by 8:30 a.m. and it was put out by 9:20 a.m.
Marilee Rutherford, owner of Twisted Hippo, said she got a call from a neighbor about the fire around 4 a.m. Monday.
“You know, we’ve worked so hard to to be a part of the community and give
the space to the community,” she said. “[I] just literally don’t know what
the future is going to look like. But I will say this: I’m so grateful for everything we have been able to build here. … And it’s all gonna be okay. We don’t have problems. We have solutions waiting to happen. So we’ll see how it all goes.”
The craft brewing world reacted swiftly to the news, with Mikerphone Brewing launching a GoFundMe to support Twisted Hippo just after the blaze was extinguished. As of 1:30 p.m., more than $45,000 had been raised to help the brewpub and its staff.
“Our hearts are with our friends at @twistedhippo today as they deal with the tragedy of an early-morning fire that destroyed their brewery,” Mikerphone posted to its Instagram account. “The Chicago beer family is one of the most supportive we know, so let’s get those funds rolling in. Donations can be used to help displaced staff, cleanup, interim business needs [and] hopefully a rebuild down the road. We know that insurance doesn’t start paying out immediately, so let’s help now. Share away friends & show them some love.”
Though it was not immediately clear how many people were displaced from the blaze, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez (33rd) said her office is “reaching out to our neighbors to provide assistance.”
Andrade said he’s been getting calls all morning from neighbors devastated by the fire.
“It’s very devastating for the community,” he said. “Yes, insurance is gonna cover everything but it’s just it’s a complete loss. … It’s just that we’re in disbelief. Everyone’s in disbelief.”
Jeff Piejak, owner of Ultimate Ninjas, said Monday he was in shock.
“It [Ultimate Ninjas Chicago] is a staple of the community,” he said. “We have 1,000 kids a week that come through that gym. We had 20 birthday parties this past weekend.”
The gym had a special event planned for Monday, too, as students were out of school for Presidents Day.
“We were sold out Presidents Day … 90 kids were going to be in that gym. I’m just still trying to process everything. I literally a couple hours ago I woke up to this.”
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