Fire that killed 2 on NW Side likely caused by ‘careless use of smoking materials,’ CFD says

Relatives and neighbors of Robert and Carol Szalacha, who were killed in a fire Thursday night, stand outside their home in the 4200 block of North Kildare Avenue on Friday. | Sam Charles/Sun-Times

Robert Szalacha, 85, and his wife, Carol Szalacha, 78, were found dead inside their home in the 4200 block of North Kildare Thursday night. Chicago Fire Department officials said Friday that “careless use of smoking materials” was likely the cause of a fire that left an elderly couple dead on the Northwest Side.
Robert Szalacha, 85, and his wife Carol Szalacha, 78, were found dead inside their home Thursday night in the 4200 block of North Kildare Avenue. A neighbor called 911 to report the fire about 9:20 p.m. and, within minutes, the fire had torn through 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.
More than a dozen passersby stopped Friday to look at the heavily damaged two-story home as relatives of the Szalachas spoke with a few remaining firefighters. They declined to speak with reporters.
A man silently walked up to the property about 10:35 a.m. and left two red roses on the front lawn, which still showed damage from the 80 or so CFD personnel who worked to put out the blaze the night before. The flames were hot enough to melt the siding of the home directly to the north.
Another neighbor, who declined to give her name, said the Szalachas had lived in the home for most of their lives.
Carol Szalacha, the neighbor said, was well known in the area for her green thumb and was a member of the Irving Park Garden Club. Every year, the club would organize a walk in the neighborhood to exhibit residents’ gardens.
“This would always be the end of the tour, over here, to see her master garden,” the neighbor said.
CFD Deputy District Chief Brian McKermitt told reporters Thursday night that crews “encountered heavy fire on the first floor” after receiving reports the couple was trapped. While inside, the blaze “started intensifying,” and the firefighters retreated outside.
Once the fire was brought under control, a search was conducted, and the bodies were discovered, McKermitt said.
Langford said the Szalachas were the 20th and 21st people to die in a house fire in Chicago this year. In all of 2019, Langford said, 26 people died in house fires across the city.
As is the case after every fatal blaze, firefighters canvassed the immediate area to pass out smoke detectors to neighbors Friday morning.

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