Updated 01/23/13 – 4:42 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — The ice-encrusted remains of a massive abandoned warehouse, the site of the biggest blaze in Chicago in about seven years, was still smoldering on Wednesday afternoon, more than 19 hours after the fire started.
Firefighters said it was the city’s biggest fire in seven years. Firefighters raised a 5-11 alarm, and two special alarms, for the blaze. That brought approximately 200 firefighters and more than 50 fire companies — about a third of the city’s fire vehicles — to the scene at 3757 S. Ashland Av., on the border between Bridgeport and McKinley Park.
The fire burned out of control on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. Even when the worst of the flames were out, crews stayed on the scene for hours to douse hotspots, and prevent the fire from flaring up again.
Ashland Avenue was closed between 35th and 39th streets throughout the blaze. Not only were crews battling a huge amount of flames, but the coldest weather in about two years also played a factor.
“It’s a massive fire,” said First Deputy Cmsr. Charles Stewart. “One challenge is the weather.”
During the fire, the brutal cold turned the spray from firefighters’ hoses into snow, showering crews as they fought to keep the flames from spreading to other buildings.
The frigid temperatures created sheets of ice on the brick walls of the warehouse and the street below.
Deputy Fire Cmsr. John McNicholas, told CBS 2′s Susanna Song: “You look at this building and it looks like an ice castle. There was a lot of water poured, probably millions of gallons. You had one-third of the fire department out here last night.”
Heat and smoke from the fire even showed up on weather radar, CBS 2′s Ed Curran reports.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the fire had been burning for more than 19 hours. Throughout the afternoon, firefighters continued to douse hot spots.
At the height of the blaze, those living nearby weren’t taking any chances, even though there are no homes on the east side of Ashland Avenue, and at least six lanes of street separate the warehouse from any homes across the street.
“I told my girlfriend, ‘Take the baby out of here, send him out to my mother-in-law’s,’” local resident Emmanuel Martinez said. “Yeah, I got rid of my little baby. He’s 11 months … I’m not waiting for anything to happen.’”
Chris Haynes, who also lives nearby, said, “There was a lot of embers going up at first. It’s a good thing the wind was blowing the way it was, not towards all the houses over here, but it was pretty bad at first.”
The Advertising Flag Company next door suffered some damage
Company president Randy Smith said, “Thank God for the firemen who did an incredible job, limiting the damage to this amount.”
The cause of the fire was not known as of Wednesday afternoon, but Jesse Macias said squatters have been a problem at the site, which has been vacant for years.
“People run and do whatever they want. No one checks it,” he said.
Flames had engulfed all floors of the warehouse, and much of the building collapsed in the blaze,
Firefighters spared the building next door, but damage was visible inside the Advertising Flag Co.
Company president Randy Smith, whose company has been here since 1987, said the fire wasn’t a surprise.
“It’s been abandoned for years,” he said. “With a building this size, there are too many ways to get in. There’s nothing of value left. It was simply a shell, a fire potential for many years. That’s why we’d hold our breaths all winter long.”
The last fire of this magnitude happened in 2006, when a fire destroyed the historic Wirt Dexter Building in the South Loop and disrupted CTA rail service for days.