Princeton fire victim says building did not have a fire escape

Published: Feb. 25, 2022 at 6:08 PM CST
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PRINCETON, Illinois (KWQC) - Residents living in an apartment complex at 657 East Peru street came too close to fate for comfort on February 6 when they woke up to flames at the door.

“All I heard was my next door neighbor saying ‘Meriah, Meriah, there’s a fire where are the kids?’” said Meriah Cruz, a resident at the complex.

Cruz lives in a duplex behind the main building where the fire started. She said she had no idea about the fire until a neighbor came into her apartment to warn her.

“When I seen her standing there I looked outside and I saw flames coming out her apartment,” said Cruz, “I seen the cop trying to help neighbors off the roof.”

On the roof was resident Kristen Warda and her children, who lived in an upstairs apartment in the main building.

Their bedroom window led out to the building’s roof, which was the only other exit from the home other than the front entrance, which was covered in flames.

Warda’s husband was knocked back by the flames when he tried to escape out of the front door.

“We lost everything,” Ward said. She says that after the devastation of the fire, she and her family want some answers.

Starting with how her apartment could be allowed by the city to only have one working entrance.

The Princeton Fire Department the fire started in the basement and due to bad electrical wiring spread up through the building. They say the the largest part of the fire was in the foyer—which had a stairway leading up to the only entrance to Warda’s apartment.

According to Illinois Law, fire escapes are only required for commercial businesses with more than 10 employees. Newly built residences are subject to stricter code enforcements, however, such as ensuring a second exit, or fire egress for all units in an apartment building.

However, the building on Peru street was built in 1876 and therefore is protected under what’s called the Grandfather Clause.

The clause allows the older building to be exempt from current code enforcements by the city since as long as it is structurally sound.

One thing residents might expect from the city for older buildings is an inspection. Warda says her apartment was not inspected in the five years she rented there.

Pete Nelson, the City Inspector of Princeton says that due to low staff and budget there is no routine inspection procedure for residential buildings. The only time, he says, a building like the one on Peru Street would be inspected would be after a fire.

TV6 asked the current landlord of the building about it being up to current city code. He instead responded that he plans to rebuild the complex. In doing so, he says he will make sure the building has a fire escape plan that will pass an inspection.

This left the question of whether a landlord can legally wait for a fire to happen in order to install something that is mandated by the city, such as a fire egress. Warda does not think so.

“When I brought my kids here two years ago we told our landlord this scenario, this exact scenario,” she said, “we don’t have a way out if the fire reaches the Foyer, I said, ‘how are we supposed to get out its our only exit and entrance?’ He said if you can get to your bedroom window there’s a roof right there.”

TV6 asked asked a lawyer about the issue online via a legal council website. The lawyer said that legally, the landlord can use the grandfather clause to argue a case that the building can be inhabited while not being up to the city’s code.

However, he said that a resident might be able to claim negligence if they felt the property was unsafe. Warda says she felt that it was.

“We were completely taken off guard,” she said, “there was zero reaction time.”

Warda says her family has been traumatized by the fire and is eyeing a lawsuit.

The Princeton Fire Department told TV6 that two things which would have made the fire’s outcome less severe are a fire escape and a smoke detector in the front entrance.

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