Officials: Site of fatal house fire violated Waukegan codes - FOX 10 News | myfoxphoenix.com

Officials: Site of fatal house fire violated Waukegan codes

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WAUKEGAN, Ill. (Sun-Times Media Wire) -

Prior to the morning of Nov. 9, building commissioner Dave Marion said, the one-story house at 1534 W. Jenkinson Court looked like any other single-family residence on a Waukegan block filled with them.

But just after 11 a.m., a fire broke out in the basement that took the life of 5-year-old Daniela Martinez, and a look inside the structure revealed living conditions that violated city ordinances against renting rooms "off the grid," as Marion put it.

"It was a three-bedroom house. Two of the bedrooms on the first floor were rented out," he said Friday, pointing to photos of keyed doorknobs from the rooms, "and we think there were three individual rental areas in the basement, and one of the areas happened to be behind the furnace. So there was the homeowner and at least five other (unrelated) people."

In the three months since Martinez was pronounced dead of smoke inhalation at Vista Medical Center East, the homeowner, identified by city documents as Juan Garibay, has also apparently gone off the grid, failing to appear at a Dec. 10 municipal court hearing in response to two building-code violations, including using a basement that does not meet qualifications as a dwelling unit.

"It wasn't in our (rental) program, and we have a whole checklist on a rental house," Marion said. "If you wanted your son to move downstairs, you need 7-foot ceiling heights throughout the basement, an authorized escape window in the bedroom, carbon-monoxide and smoke detectors, and a sprinkler above your furnace. We do allow that. ... (But) this was illegal expansion, rented without a license."

Waukegan Fire Department Fire Marshal Steve Lenzi, reviewing photos of the scene with Marion, pointed out that Daniela Martinez's bed — covered with stuffed animals and "Dora the Explorer" sheets — was in the basement.

"This is where the little girl would have been sleeping on a daily basis," Lenzi said, noting that the escape window was both smaller and higher off the ground than required by life-safety code. "Most of the people in the house at the time of that fire aren't going to fit out that window. ... Most fires happen at night, they wake up, they have no way out."

In the case of the fire that killed Martinez, she appears to have been alone in the basement while three other occupants were upstairs, two of them eating breakfast, according to a Waukegan police report.

One of the occupants, whose identity was redacted in a report provided to The News-Sun, told police he was heading downstairs when "he heard a ‘boom' and then smelled smoke." The occupant reportedly ran upstairs and alerted two other occupants, and they fled outside. Police report that at least one resident attempted to rescue Daniela but was driven back by smoke.

Firefighters responding to the scene were told that Daniela was inside, and their reports state that conditions in the basement were "very hot (with) smoke down to the floor but no fire. ... Entire basement was completely filled with smoke and heat." She was found unresponsive in a bathroom area and rushed outside.

Lenzi said the investigation into the incident is still considered active, and the Illinois State Fire Marshal is expected to file a final report with his office. Asked if Garibay could be facing more legal scrutiny, Lenzi said: "We could possibly be looking at a failure to provide a working smoke detector charge," but several unknown factors weigh on the case.

"It's always a tough one to pursue," Lenzi said. "He admitted to removing one from upstairs, (but) the one upstairs never really would have been activated by the fire — the fire was all downstairs, and there was the burned-out remains of a smoke detector found down there. ... It did not appear to be working, we didn't hear any notice of it when we got there, nobody mentioned that it had been working, but we did find one there, and we did find a battery with it. So when we go to court, we need to prove that there wasn't a working smoke detector there, and that's a tough one to prove."

Complicating matters is the fact that investigators determined that the fire was started by an accident, not by the homeowner's direct negligence. Photos from the aftermath show a shrine that had been set up for the Dios de los Muertos celebration, or Day of the Dead, from earlier in November.

A box of wooden matches in seen in front of memorial candles, and it appears that Daniela lit a match and tossed it onto a pile of blankets made from a synthetic fabric. Lenzi noted that such materials produce a thick, black, lethal smoke.

Today, Wells Fargo has taken possession of the residence, and officials wait to see if Garibay will appear at a March 11 hearing in adjudication court. Fines on the two violations started at $250 each and are up to $500, and a lien of $779 will go on the property if Garibay doesn't settle matters on or before March 11. Marion expressed skepticism that the fines will be paid.

"Whereabouts unknown. He's gone, as far as we know," Marion said. "The last thing that we had with him (was that) his only concern was to get his car out of the driveway. You had myself, the fire marshal, the fire chief and the state fire marshal, and we finally just took the tape down and said, ‘Get your car and go.' It was a sad, frustrating thing, and all this guy wants to do is get his car off the driveway.

"Zero remorse, that still bugs me," added Marion, saying "there's no reason in this day and age for those people to be living like this. If we get a call and there are people living in a basement, we tell them that there are other places they can go."

"I know it affected him." Marion said, pointing to Lenzi. "It affected me. It still does. This shouldn't have happened."

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