It was about three in the morning Friday night when I was beginning to nod off on my couch when a sea of red and blue lights suddenly flooded my apartment, sirens not far behind. Looking out my window onto Halsted St. in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, I counted three fire trucks quickly pull west onto 18th, screaming down the street in the early morning hours of Saturday morning. The next day, I checked the news to find the story of seven fires set only a few blocks from my own home. Fires that killed one resident, threatened the lives of dozens more and left twenty-five Pilsen residents displaced without a place to go.
Pilsen, as it's been known for generations, is a community of tightly-wound, blue-collar types often known for an unwillingness to give ground in the fight for space near downtown. True to form, the stories that came from the fires this weekend proved as much. As a reported 100 firefighters descended on the near south side neighborhood, Manuel Beltran kicked in the air conditioning unit of his downstairs neighbors, Dora Maria Hernandez and her three children who were sleeping, unaware of the blaze that would later engulf their home.
In the wake of the blazes, which have been classified by the Chicago Fire Department as arson because of their proximity and the timing of the fires. "You don't have seven fires start by themselves that close together," Langford said, speaking to DNAInfo. "That's just way too much coincidence." The fires were set in garages and alleys throughout the west side of Pilsen, with garage fires on the 1700 block of West 21st Street, the 2100 block of South Wood Street, the 1800 block of West 21st Street, among others and the Chicago Police Department's Bomb & Arson division is currently investigating.
As the weekend comes to a close, it does so with a heavy burden felt by many in this part of the city. After escaping with her life and the safety of her three children, Hernandez watched as her home and possessions burned to the ground. Beltran, who had helped them escape, looked on as his entire inventory of items and clothes he housed to sell at local flea markets. Now, he will have to find a new course of action to pay the bills, as well as a suitable home.
With all the strife our city faces, it's encouraging that we often still find the ability to be compassionate. A GoFundMe page for the victims of Saturday morning's fires has raised almost $10,000 in just under a day of operation, which is available at the button below, as well as locations around the city accepting donations on the behalf of those affected.
- Donations can be dropped off at Whittier Elementary, 1900 W. 23rd St., from 8:15 a.m.-3:15 p.m. Monday-Wednesday.
Pilsen Unidos, Pilsen Alliance, Pilsen Neighborhood, the Chicago Socialist Party and Rauner YMCA will collect supplies and donations for the affected families at the Rauner YMCA, 2700 S. Western Ave., from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Items needed include toiletries, pantry foods, gift cards, and clothing. More information on the specific needs of each family is online.
The American Legion Post 547 is also collecting supplies for those affected by the Friday fires.
Supplies can be dropped off at the American Legion Dorman Dunn Post 547, 2129 W. Cermak Road until 7 p.m. Friday, Noon-3 p.m. Saturday and Noon-2 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, contact Alex Acevedo at 312-339-7689.