Sterling city manager: ‘ATF’s presence has nothing to do with an explosion’

Officials don’t know if apartment building had smoke alarms; family of fire victim still being notified

A large ATF vehicle sits in the municipal lot across from the charred apartment building at 406 East Third Street in Sterling that was destroyed by an early morning fire on Friday. Lettering on the vehicle says "Explosives and Fire Investigation" and "National Response Team".

STERLING – It’s not yet known if the building destroyed by fire early Friday had smoke alarms, and there is no indication that an explosion preceded the blaze, City Manager Scott Shumard said in an email Sunday.

One tenant is missing and presumed dead after the fire ravaged the three-story apartment building downtown. That person was not publicly identified Sunday because officials still were working to contact out-of-state family members, Shumard said.

He could not say if the building at 406/408 E. Third St. had smoke alarms. “This will be difficult to determine until the investigation is complete,” he wrote, but “so far, there is no indication smoke alarms were audibly alarming upon arrival at the scene.”

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, one of the agencies investigating the cause of the fire, “is dispatching a response team from the Chicago Field Division with certified fire inspectors to collect and analyze evidence with state-of-the-art technology,” Shumard said in an update Saturday.

Sunday, he clarified that “the Office of the State Fire Marshal called the ATF in to provide technical assistance. The ATF has Certified Fire Investigators (CFIs) that are special agents with highly specialized training in investigating fires.

“ATF’s presence has nothing to do with an explosion,” Shumard said.

No condition was available Sunday for a woman who jumped from a third-floor window to escape the flames.

She was flown from CGH Medical Center to OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford on Friday, and was being treated in its Critical Care Unit, Shumard had said. Her name was not released.

Thirteen people lived in the building, but not all were home at the time of the fire, Shumard said Sunday. He confirmed that the building had eight apartments.

An online real estate listing posted within the last year said the building, which was built in 1920, had two commercial spaces on the first floor and four studio and four one-bedroom apartments on the second and third floors, all occupied.

Officials originally thought two people were missing, but as a result of interviews and research, investigators were able to determine only one resident couldn’t be reached, Shumard said.

A cause of the fire has not been determined, and no preliminary cause was released.

Sterling police and fire departments, the state fire marshal, and the Illinois State Police Crime Scene Investigations unit also are investigating. The crime scene unit will gather and document evidence as a matter of course, in case the fire turns out to be suspicious.

The recovery of the victim, the ongoing investigation, the instability of the building and its pending demolition means the city will keep East Third/state Route 2 closed from First to Fifth avenues for several days.

How long before the building is demolished depends on the time investigators need to examine the scene, he said.

In the meantime, truck traffic must access East Third/state Route 2 via state Route 40 and Lynn Boulevard.

Customers who need access to the businesses in the 100-400 blocks of Third Street will have to use the north-south avenues via Second and Fourth streets. The Bubble car wash is accessible via the alley off Second Street.

The fire began about 2:20 a.m., when firefighters arrived to find flames throughout the third story, heavy smoke throughout the building and a report of people trapped inside.

A man and a girl who escaped to an adjacent roof were treated for minor injuries and released.

Two tenants in the building to the west, at 302 Fourth Ave., were evacuated during the fire and as of Sunday, not allowed to move back in because of safety issues – part of the burned building’s wall is pressing against the back of the Fourth Avenue structure, so it can’t be fully evaluated, Shumard said.

According to Whiteside County property tax records, 406/408 is owned by Mihail “Mike” Mihalios of Chicago.

Mihalios, 71, also owns 412/414 E. Third St., which is the white two-story commercial and apartment building due east, and the empty lot east of that.

The 412/414 building has a laundromat on the first floor that is closed because of the fire, and the apartments are vacant.

Mihalios also owns an apartment building at 605 Ave. B, and a house at 704 Locust St., both in Sterling, online records show.

A call to him Friday afternoon seeking more information was not returned.

Dixon Rural, Dixon City, Milledgeville, Prophetstown, Morrison, Fulton, Polo, Tampico, Erie and Clinton (Iowa) fire departments assisted, as did Rock Falls police and the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Department. The Salvation Army and American Red Cross assisted residents.

The same building was damaged in a fire Feb. 13, 2012, caused when a tenant left a burning candle on a windowsill. No one was hurt in that fire.

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Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.