Fire devastates family
By Erica Meltzer Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted Friday, December 17, 2004
Daily Herald Photo/Joe LewnardThese are the things Barry and Dawn Walls can never get back: their wedding pictures, pictures of their four children growing up and family videos, including images of Barry Walls' mother, now deceased.
By the light of day, the Walls family on Thursday morning tried to absorb the extent of their losses after a raging fire reduced their split-level Palatine home to a charred shell Wednesday night.
The fire also killed the Walls' three dogs and a puppy that belonged to Barry's brother, Harry Walls, who recently moved in with the family.
"When I came here today, I freaked out," Dawn Walls said as she surveyed the ruins. "I saw them carrying out the dogs, and I started crying."
Jim Eriksen, who headed the fire investigation team, said he believes careless smoking was the cause of the fire, though engineers from the insurance company will check the space heaters to make sure they didn't cause the blaze.
Both brothers smoke, and the fire likely started in the living room where the brothers sat watching television before they left the house Wednesday, Eriksen said.
The seven displaced members of the Walls family spent Wednesday night in Dawn Walls' mother's two-bedroom apartment. They returned to the house at 172 Brentwood Drive with fire investigators Thursday but found little to save.
"I had so many dreams for fixing it up and making it nice, and now I'm looking at just a bunch of wood that isn't even wood anymore," Barry Walls said later. "I can see right through my living room into my basement."
Dawn Walls huddled with family members and neighbors as her husband walked the property line.
"I'm OK, but my husband is in shock," she said. "I have to be strong for my husband and for my family."
The Walls had lived on this quiet cul-de-sac just off Lake-Cook Road in Palatine for eight years. Barry Walls, a carpenter, was laid off in July and worked only occasionally. Dawn Walls, who is hearing impaired, takes care of their four children.
The family had fallen behind on their bills and used space heaters because their gas had been shut off. The family received Christmas presents from Bridge Youth and Family Services, a community group that works with Palatine Township. Those "beautiful presents" also were destroyed in the fire.
Harry Walls, Barry's brother, moved in with the family several months ago after a divorce and a hernia made it difficult to continue managing the apartment buildings where he worked.
The brothers were at a side job in Lincolnwood when a neighbor called and told them their house was on fire. They rushed home and found Dawn Walls already on the scene.
The neighborhood, which was annexed less than a year ago into Palatine, does not have fire hydrants, and the firefighters had to run more than 1,000 feet of hose from fire hydrants on Lake-Cook Road. Neighbors appalled at the damage wondered Thursday if lack of water prevented a fast response, but firefighters said that wasn't a factor.
The fire trucks all have self-contained water tanks that firefighters used to start battling the blaze as soon as they arrived, even before the hoses were connected to hydrants.
Eriksen said the fire probably burned for 3¨ to 4 hours inside the house before any neighbors noticed and called the fire department.
As a fire burns, it consumes oxygen. When a fire uses up all the oxygen in an area, it banks down, generating intense heat and dense smoke from floor to ceiling, but no flames. When more oxygen becomes available -- when someone opens a door, or a window breaks, for instance -- the fire explodes in a raging inferno.
People who walked past the house earlier in the day probably noticed nothing amiss, Eriksen said. One neighbor told investigators they saw some smoke coming from the chimney around 3 p.m. but thought nothing of it. Most of the houses in the neighborhood have fireplaces, and the smell of smoke is common this time of year.
At some point after 5 p.m. more oxygen got into the house -- perhaps when the heat caused a window to crack -- and the fire erupted again, sending flames high into the air.
"If we had had four hydrants in front of the house, we wouldn't have been able to save it," Eriksen said. "It was too far gone." Fire: Blaze probably started four hours earlier