Careless smoking suspected in fatal rooming house fire

November 30, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane | Gregory P. Kane,Staff Writer

The burned debris strewn on the sidewalk outside 1713 W. Lombard St. told only part of the story of the fire that killed 34-year-old Antonio Gerald about 5 a.m. yesterday.

Mr. Gerald had lived in room No. 8 of the rooming house for "two to three months," said Nellene Logan, a resident of a first-floor apartment.

Fire investigators classified the blaze as "accidental" -- possibly the result of careless smoking. The fire burned out the third-floor rear room where the victim lived and caused smoke and water damage to other rooms, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, the public information officer for the Fire Department.

Capt. Dennis Howell, the fire investigator, said Mr. Gerald habitually smoked in bed. Firefighters found him lying on the floor of his room, where he apparently was overcome by smoke and collapsed while trying to reach his bedroom door.

Ms. Logan, 42, who has lived at the rooming house nearly a year, agreed that smoking might have caused the fire but suggested other possibilities.

"Tony was a diabetic," she said, using the name most of the building's residents called the victim. "He had a lot of diabetic seizures from his blood sugar level going low. He also used a hot plate. It's possible the hot plate may have overheated right after he had a seizure, or that he had a seizure while smoking."

Ms. Logan and a homeless woman she had taken in for the night suggested another possible reason for the fire.

"During the summer, a man was found dead in room No. 8, Ms. Logan said. "I called 911 to come get the body. I hear another man was killed in the same room a few years ago."

"We call it the 'bad luck room,' " said the homeless woman, who declined to be identified.

Mr. Gerald, whom Ms. Logan described as a "nice young man," apparently was unemployed at the time of his death.

"I only knew him from seeing him coming in and out. I knew he was a diabetic. I called the ambulance the first time he went into a diabetic seizure here," Ms. Logan said.

The bad luck also hit other residents of the building. A married couple with two children who lived in No. 7, on the third floor saw their apartment damaged so much by smoke and water that the landlord had to find them other accommodations.

Ms. Logan lost her television set and clothing to smoke and water damage.

Only parts of the building have electricity, and the lights in the hallways do not work. Most of the occupants of the buildings eight rooms live on fixed incomes, Ms. Logan said.

"The people living here have no place to go," she said before going into her apartment to try to rig up a lighting system for the hallway.

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