Extra-alarm fire guts NW Side flea market building

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 / Sun-Times Media Wire) - As black-brown smoke poured out of the West Side flea market—one of the city’s largest fires in months—tears streamed down Araceli Velasquez’s cheeks.

“It’s too many years —working, working, working,” Velasquez, 44, told the Chicago Sun-Times as her brother tried to comfort her.

Despondent faces were everywhere Tuesday, as Velasquez and others who made a meager living selling everything from rosary beads to parakeets inside Buyer’s Flea Market, realized they’d probably lost everything in a massive fire that, at its height, brought 170 firefighters to the scene.

There were no reports of injuries in the blaze, although firefighters rescued a woman from a washroom in the building, Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. The fire started about 9:45 a.m. in the south corner of the building at 4545 W. Division, firefighters said.

The fire was struck out about 5:25 p.m. and Fire Media said the building and said the building, “has suffered partial collapse” and “appears headed to a total loss.” It was expected to several days to determine the fire’s cause and origin.

The north wall and part of the west wall have collapsed, Fire Media said about 4 p.m.

It wasn’t clear what caused the blaze, which produced thick, pungent smoke—leaving a dirty smear across the sky that could be seen from miles away. Several cars were parked both in and on the roof of the market, Langford said.

“As the vehicles caught fire, the roof started to fail,” Langford said. “There were some cars parked on top of the deck, employee cars, and they started falling in.”

A man who said he works security at the market told several reporters that a man had been rescued from the roof of the building, but Langford couldn’t confirm that.

At the height of the four-alarm fire, in addition to the large number of firefighters, the department had about 65 pieces of equipment on the scene, Langford said. A Level 1 HazMat response was also initiated due to flammable objects inside, but was called off about 4 p.m.

“We’ve got our best people on it. It’s just a matter of surround and drown,” Langford said after firefigbhters were pulled from the building about 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Langford described the collection of items inside as a “potpourri.”

An elderly Korean woman declined to go on camera, but told FOX 32 that when she noticed smoke rising from the floor, she called the building's owners and left a voice message. Then, she headed for a washroom.

I turn on water, I close the door, I put my clothes, wet, to my nose,” the woman said.

FOX 32: So you soaked your clothes in water?

“Yah,” she said.

After about 15 minutes, three firemen showed up and carried her to safety. She had parked her car on the roof, as employees often do, and that created problems for firefighters.

“There’s parking on the roof, and some of the cars have fallen into the building which makes us not able to get into the building. So we're fighting this defensively,” said Chief Joe Rosscosalva of CFD.

The flea market had more than five hundred vendors, and many had no insurance. Julie Rodriguez sold children's clothing here for 20 years.

“We have people that come here from all different places, even Iowa, Milwaukee, you know when there's a holiday, they will always come here and shop, because of the deals. You know, and everything's gone now, I guess,” Rodriguez said.

Citlalli Resendiz, 11, helped her mother at the flea market.

“She was going to complete one year in May. She sold cosmetics and hair products,” said Resendiz.

Jerry Buckman had a socks stand at the flea market for three decades..

“I'm just crying inside,” Buckman said.

The flea market's owner, Lenny Krause, lives in Florida. His spokesman said he is headed back to Chicago.

“Unfortunately, it's a lot of loss for him, his vendors, his employees and families, which really bothers him,” said owner’s spokesman Cesar Gonzalez.

The market, which drew thousands on weekends—leading some neighbors to complain about clogged streets—catered to a largely Hispanic crowd. Vendors sold everything from tacos to rosary beads to bracelets.

It was billed as “Chicagoland’s largest indoor/outdoor flea market” and has been in business for more than 30 years, according to the market’s website.

Mamacita Harvey, 42, was among those who worked in the market, helping a friend with a pet stall that sold parakeets, rabbits, small snakes—even iguanas, she said.

“I’m very sad—they were good-selling animals,” Harvey said, watching the smoke drift skyward.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. Building department records show the last full inspection was two years ago. Problems were found with leaking water, interior walls and ceilings.