Fatal fire on northwest side likely caused by “reckless use of smoking materials”, CFD says

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Twelve hours after a fire killed Carol and Robert Szalacha at their Old Irving Park home, a man walked silently to the edge of the couple’s lawn.

The grass was threshed and muddy, telltale signs of the approximately 80 Chicago Fire Department personnel responding to the blaze at 4216 N. Kildare Ave. Thursday evening.

The man knelt on the ground and placed two red roses on the Szachala lawn before turning and walking away.

For Carol Szalacha, 78, flowers were serious business.

For more than 20 years, she was a stable figure of the Irving Park Garden Club, serving as the group’s president from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2008 to 2009.

She particularly liked her hostas.

“I have at least 25 or 30 different kinds,” she said in the April newsletter from the garden club. “I like their versatility and their coloring.

On Friday morning, parents and neighbors of Robert and Carol Szalacha stand outside the couples’ home in the 4200 block of North Kildare Avenue.
Sam Charles / Sun-Times

Their home, built in the early 1890s, has been in the family since 1948, according to the Irving Park Historical Society. Friday morning, it was an envelope of himself.

CFD officials said on Friday that “reckless use of smoking products” was likely the cause of the fire.

A neighbor called 911 to report the blaze at around 9:20 p.m. and, within minutes, the fire had ravaged much of the house, according to CFD spokesman Larry Langford.

The fire started on the first floor and was likely accelerated by an oxygen tank that was nearby, Langford said. The heat was so intense that it melted the siding of the house directly north of the Szalacha.

Autopsies performed by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office on Friday revealed Carol Szalacha died of burns as well as smoke and soot inhalation. Her husband, Robert Szalacha, 85, died of carbon monoxide poisoning and burns.

Dozens of passers-by stopped Friday to view the heavily damaged two-story house as relatives of the Szalachas spoke with a few firefighters still at the scene. They refused to speak to reporters.

A neighbor, who declined to give her name, said the Szalachas had lived in the house for most of their lives.

Every year, the neighbor said, the garden club organized a walk around the neighborhood to show residents’ flower arrangements.

“It would always be the end of the tour here to see his master garden,” the neighbor said.

CFD Deputy District Chief Brian McKermitt told reporters Thursday night that crews “encountered heavy gunfire on the first floor” after receiving reports the couple were trapped. Inside, the fire “started to escalate” and firefighters retreated outside.

Once the fire was under control, a search was carried out and the bodies were discovered, McKermitt said.

Langford said the Szalachas are the 20th and 21st people to die in house fires in Chicago this year. In the year 2019, Langford said, 26 people died in house fires across the city.

As is the case after every fatal blaze, firefighters scoured the immediate area to distribute smoke detectors to neighbors on Friday.


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