'A ghetto Purple Heart'

A suburban man visiting family over the Labor Day weekend played a key role in rescuing residents of a fatal Rogers Park apartment fire, racing into the building to save victims hanging from a window ledge.Albert Tillman of Lansing saw two children, a boy and a girl, hanging from the window ledge smoke pouring out over their heads shortly after midnight Sunday.

He kicked in the door to the second floor of the building at 7606 N. Marshfield and alerted Myron Hall and his family to the fire, then ran to the third floor and grabbed the boy from the ledge.

"I have five kids of my own. I did what anyone would have done," Tillman said.

Michael Condo, another resident, said, "He's the real hero. He ran in there fearlessly. He's a real American. He deserves a ghetto purple heart."

Despite Tillman's efforts, the fire killed six children and sent two to the hospital.

All but one are members of the Ramirez family. The Chicago Fire Department lists the deceased as Vanessa, 14, Erick, 12, Suzette, 10, Idaly, 6, and Kevin, 3. Escarlet Ramos, a 3-year-old, who was spending the night with the family, also perished.

William, 7, Natali, 16, and 3-month- old Abiedch are the only surviving children. William and Natali are still hospitalized according to Yadira Ramirez, the children's older sister.

Fire Commissioner Ray Orazco, clearly stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy said, "What do you say? There's nothing you can say. It's been the worst in a long time. The only thing you can do is just pray for these poor people."Residents of the area smelled the smoke and quickly responded once they identified the source. They found Augusta Ramirez in the yard, screaming for her children, holding 3-month-old Abiedch. Amado Ramirez, the father, was not at home when the fire started.

Curtis Howk, after hearing there were eight children in the house, ran up the back stairs with numerous other area residents and kicked the door down, only to be rebuffed by the heat, smoke and flames.

Undaunted, he and the others ran around the front to try to gain entry.

Marlon Willis, one of the many attempting to help, said, "There were people in our neighborhood trying to save these kids."

Some criticized the Chicago Police Department for failing to respond quickly, and also for barring Tillman from returning to the building after he'd rescued one child.

Tillman said he was attempting to rescue the second child he'd seen dangling from the window ledge when police threatened to arrest him.

Though firefighers were not yet on the scene, Tillman said, "They told me, ‘we don't need your help.'"The Ramirez family was well liked by neighbors, who said the children were always playing in the back yard. Many neighbors had given them clothes and fed the children, knowing the family's financial situation.

One girl said she always saw all of them walking to the beach together. The neighborhood kids were devastated by the deaths.

'I just saw them at 7 o'clock. Five hours later they're dead. That's really hard to take.'The building is owned by Jay Johnson, who owns seven buildings in the area, and also rehabbed the Howard Theatre building with money from the Howard-Paulina TIF. He is also on Ald. Joe Moore's 49th Ward zoning advisory committee.

The preliminary investigation showed that candles being used for lighting caused the fire. The family has been without electricity for months according to area residents.

Though the fire investigators found were no smoke detectors in the apartment, Moore said that the apartments have detectors and they are all "hard-wired". He also noted that the building recently was inspected and passed.

Markus Thomas, one of several bystanders who tried to enter the building and reach the victims, said he heard no smoke detectors sounding during the fire.

'All I heard was kids screaming,' he said.