By Tara Molina

RICHTON PARK, Ill. (CBS) — After a massive extra alarm fire started by a man frying chicken, 26 Richton Park families are now homeless. The victims are now staying in hotel rooms and trying to make sense of it all, but one woman is happy.

“Just so grateful,” said Minnie Walker. “I could’ve been dead, but I’m here.”

Minnie called the building home for more than 30 years. Now she has to start over, but the story she wants heard is not about what she lost.

“It just exploded,” she said. “Fire everywhere. The smoke could’ve killed me, and I know that.”

Hours after waking up to that smoke and loud knocks on her front door, Minnie was waiting on the Red Cross in a high school lunch room with only the clothes on her back.

“I’m just grateful that they got me out,” she said.

Through tears, her daughter by her side, she shared the same message over and over about the kindness of her neighbors, who immediately thought of her and got her out.

“If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “He picked me up and brought me down the stairs.”

Minnie just had a knee surgery and just recovered from COVID-19 after weeks in the hospital.

“I couldn’t have made it,” she said.

She is so appreciative because she says she knows all too well how this could have gone. Fifteen years ago to the day she lost her sister and her sister’s grandchild in a fire like this one.

“But I made it out, and I’m grateful,” she said. “They say there’s not a lot of love, that people don’t love and don’t care about anyone, and whatever they do they don’t care. Let me tell you there are other people out there that do care about other people.”

The Red Cross and the school district are helping those 26 families.

How to help:

  • Donate to the Red Cross
  • Help Richton School District 227 provide clothes and food to victims. Email the superintendent at jthomas@rich227.org.
  • No funds have been set up for victims’ yet, but you can email Minnie’s daughter if you want to help at Kimberlyalexess@gmail.com

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Tara Molina