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Fire crews still spraying water on remains of warehouse fire

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Updated: November 2, 2012 6:14AM

Black smoke was rising from the charred husk of a four-story “maze” of a warehouse in Avondale on Monday morning, the scene of a five-alarm a day before.

Two Chicago Fire Department crews poured water onto the warehouse again Monday, a day after firefighters spent more than 12 hours battling flames Sunday, calling more than 200 firefighters and paramedics to the scene.

Chief Kevin McGregor, a fire department spokesman, said it’s not uncommon for demolition crews to unearth piles of ashes that have been smoldering under the rubble after a fire.

“It’s probably just a rekindle,” McGregor said.

Gary Olson, the 47-year-old drummer in the band Rival, watched the activity forlornly Monday morning, knowing that the massive blaze likely destroyed the band’s equipment.

“We’ve been to Europe and back, but we might be doing nothing now,” he said.

It’s not clear what started the blaze, and no injuries were reported, but firefighters blasted the building in the 2600 block of West Nelson Street with a relentless stream of water — beginning early in the morning and continuing well into the afternoon — that temporarily flooded a street behind the building.

Residential areas surround the industrial complex where the warehouse is found, and neighbors could be seen throughout the day watching the firefighters in action. Some children wore firefighter Halloween costumes, and another boy walked around with his squirt gun, making sure to aim it toward the fire.

Michael Fox, chief of special operations for the Chicago Fire Department, said the alarm for the fire went out about 1:30 a.m. He said firefighters had trouble finding the flames at first.

“It’s really a maze of five buildings that are built together into one,” Fox said. “And they’re all different construction.”

But he said it only took a few minutes to realize how difficult the fire would be to put out. He said firefighters immediately tried to surround and contain the fire with water. Authorities said the situation was upgraded to a five-alarm fire at about 5:30 a.m.

Flames spread to all floors of the 400-foot by 400-foot warehouse, and portions of the walls and roof soon collapsed, apparently crushing a white van parked beside the building.

Another fire official said the blaze was technically struck at 9:30 a.m., but hot spots remained and fire crews sprayed water into the building for several hours. They continued as demolition crews arrived and began ripping into the building shortly before 4 p.m.

Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago was at the scene overseeing operations. Fox said it might have been as long as three years since firefighters last battled a five-alarm fire, that one a high-rise fire on Chestnut Street.

“We don’t get them as often as we used to,” Fox said.

But onlookers tolerated the smoke, droplets of water and occasional ashes that fell from the sky to get a glimpse of the real-life drama, and to see whether the warehouse would eventually collapse.

An ice cream man strolled through the crowd at one point. Another man could be seen grilling out of the back of his car early in the afternoon. Some people wore masks and eye protection as they stood nearby.

Robert Essex and Tim Weichselbaum stood on their front porch Sunday morning to watch with Andrea Paugel. The men said they’ve lived there for about five months, and Weichselbaum said the fire didn’t worry him because he knew nobody lived in the complex.

“That building was an eyesore,” Weichselbaum said.

Mike Szczech, who lives in the 2700 block of Nelson, said he believes the building contained a wrought iron fence company and one or two small construction companies.

It’s also where Olson and Chuck McNulty, the drummer and guitar player for the heavy metal band Rival, said they’ve been rehearsing for five years.

Their space inside the warehouse was filled with “tens of thousands” of dollars worth of music equipment and memorabilia, they said. IMcNulty wasn’t optimistic about recovering any of it.

“All the windows are busted out,” he said, “and water damage can be just as bad as fire.”

Contributing: Stefano Esposito

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