The six young children and three teenagers killed in one of the worst fire tragedies Chicago has seen in a decade were gathered together for a sleepover at a West Side home when the flames sparked, family members said.
The Cook County Medical Examiner confirmed another death, 14-year-old Cesar Contreras, Monday evening — making a total of nine deaths.
The blaze began around 4 a.m. Sunday in an enclosed rear porch at the back of a building at 2224 S. Sacramento Ave., according to the fire officials.
The children who died were a close knit group of siblings, cousins and family friends, the youngest just 3 months old. Two others from the group, both 14 years old, were on life support at Stroger Hospital, according to family and fire officials.
"I don't even got words to explain the pain I'm feeling right now," said Marcos Contreras, who lost four of his siblings in the fire at his mother's home. "It just feels like my whole world was crashing."
Contreras said his mother had left the home with another sibling and returned to find her home engulfed in flames.
"This is a tragedy beyond anything I ever dreamed of in life," said the grandmother of several of the children, Ramonita Reyes.
The exact cause of the fire remained under investigation, said CFD spokesman Larry Langford.
"We have not had this in many, many years, this amount of fatalities and injuries in one location," said Chicago Fire Department commissioner Jose A. Santiago. "This is very unusual."
Santiago said the blaze was first reported when a woman called 911 saying she came home from work and smelled the fire.
Police say the victims were immediately found on the second floor of the structure, which was described as a "coach house." By the time fire crews got inside the building, seven people were already dead, officials say.
Santiago said a firefighter lieutenant was also injured in the fire and transported to Rush hospital where he remains in good, stable condition.
Fire officials said there were no working smoke detectors in the home.
"The city shares the grief of the families who have lost so many on this day," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement Sunday. "We now know the fire began in the rear and the exit to the front was clear, but without working smoke detectors the occupants were not awakened in time to get to safety. Our thoughts go out to not only the families of those who perished but to members of the department who pushed as hard as possible to reverse the deadly fate of the eight who are now gone. We all pray the two living victims will make a recovery despite the odds."
Officials have not released the names or ages of the victims, except for 3-month-old Amaya Almaraz. Family members identifed the other victims as: Ariel Garcia, 5; Xavier Contreras, 11; Nathan Contreras, 13; Giovanni Monarrez 10; and Victor Mendoza, 16.
A 3-year-old and a 5-year-old who also died in the fire have not yet been identified by authorities.
A GoFundMe page was set up to help the families of the victims and the American Red Cross responded to the scene.
“At the Red Cross, our hearts are with the Little Village community after this tragic fire,” Celena Roldan, CEO of the Chicago & Northern IL Red Cross, said in a statement. “The Red Cross will continue to work with those impacted by this terrible fire. Smoke alarms can save lives, so we will also work in the community and with the Chicago Fire Department on canvassing to install more lifesaving smoke alarms.”
Meanwhile, outside the home, a memorial of white crosses and candles is set out up to remember the children who lost their lives.
"We just have to put our faith in God," Reyes said.
"Hopefully he watches over the rest of our family, the ones we only have left," Contreras said. "Because you never know the last day you're going to see somebody."