Juanito Vargas had just fixed himself a pot of coffee.
Before he could take his first sip, he heard a buzzing sound from the hallway of his downtown Mendota apartment complex.
“I’ve never heard it before,” Vargas said.
It had subsided, and Vargas took a sip of coffee. Then it started again.
“I opened my door to see what it was, and I saw my landlord pushing the fire alarm button,” Vargas said. “He said help me get everyone out. He started knocking on the doors on the right, and I knocked on the doors on the left.”
Vargas lived in one of the 13 occupied apartment complexes in the 15-unit building that was a total loss from fire Monday afternoon on the 800 block of Main Street in Mendota.
The fire, beginning shortly after 1 p.m. Monday, brought about 20 or more fire departments from across the region in what was a seven-alarm fire of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System and a four-alarm of the EMS box, said Mendota Fire Chief Dennis Rutishauser.
No residents were injured. Two firefighters were injured, taken to the hospital and released, Rutishauser said.
One resident was trapped on the second floor of the apartment complex after Vargas and his service dog escaped the fire safely. Vargas said residents, then firefighters, supplied a ladder that was able to allow the resident to get out.
“The response was so quick,” Vargas said of firefighters and EMS crews. “And the people who helped the resident who was trapped, it just reminded that there are still good people in this world.”
Those affected by the fire were directed to the Mendota Police Department where the Red Cross was assisting them.
Vargas said he and his landlord had located the fire’s origin and when they opened the door, he said he saw pitch black smoke shoot out the doorway.
“That’s when we knew it was time to get out, and when I got out, I called 911,” Vargas said.
Along with the apartment complex, Waterfalls Bar, 810 Main St., also was destroyed in the fire. The bar collapsed as it was being hosed down by firefighters Monday evening. The farthest north wall of the block contained a “Bull” Durham Smoking Tobacco mural, similar to ghost signs left nostalgically in communities.
Rutishauser said all of the buildings making up the west side of the 800 block of Main Street will need to be demolished, including the mural.
The fire chief said the block of buildings shared a roof structure that allowed the fire to spread quickly and affect each address.
After residents were accounted for, he said firefighters’ strategy turned defensive, knowing the buildings would be a loss.
“There is no sense in risking injury to any other firefighters,” Rutishauser said.
While all residents escaped the fire safely, there were pets that died, but Rutishauser said he didn’t know how many as of Monday night.
Samantha Plumb lived in Apartment 10 with her husband and said she was able to get out of the apartment safely.
“Red Cross has been great to us,” Plumb said. “I’m so thankful no people were hurt.”
As of 8:30 p.m. Monday, Rutishauser said Mendota Police Department activated the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, which dispatched police officers from across Northern Illinois to Mendota to help close streets and direct traffic. Bystanders watched from a distance, across Illinois Avenue, as the fire continued Monday evening. Smoke billowed south downtown for blocks.
With the fire across the street from the Mendota depot, and near the railroad tracks, the fire chief said railroad traffic was halted until the blaze was under control. Some Amtrak trains were allowed to pass through, then freight trains traveled “at a slow roll,” he said.
“We wanted them to be cautious with the visibility low with the smoke, and all the emergency vehicles coming and going,” Rutishauser said.
Electricity and gas were taken off line for the 800 block downtown, but Rutishauser said other downtown businesses should have electricity Tuesday morning.
He said he will have more information Tuesday as crews continued to fight the fire into the evening.
Firefighters from Sublette, Earlville, La Salle, Paw Paw, LaMoille, Amboy, Oglesby, Wallace, Sandwich, Ladd, Peru, Spring Valley, Princeton, Streator and Ottawa, among others responded to the fire.