City identifies man presumed dead in Sterling apartment building fire

City manager: ‘ATF’s presence has nothing to do with an explosion;’ owner said he thinks blaze was no accident

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 – A 62-year-old man was identified Monday afternoon as the person missing in Friday’s apartment building fire.

Juan Antonio “Tony” Anaya is presumed to have died, City Manager Scott Shumard said in an update sent about 3 p.m.

No other information about Anaya was provided. The release of his name was delayed because officials needed to notify family members who live out of state, Shumard said previously.

Meanwhile, the woman who jumped from her third-floor apartment to escape the flames remained in critical condition at OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, he said.

A cause of the fire has not been determined, he said.

The timeline for the recovery of Anaya’s body, and the demolition of the building, which partially collapsed in the fire, depends on the investigation, which is being led by the Chicago Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“The scene needs to be preserved to allow specialists the opportunity to meticulously uncover any and all possible evidence,” Shumard said in the release.

Officials do no yet know whether the building at 406/408 E. Third St. had smoke alarms, Shumard said in an email Sunday.

“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.”

There also is no indication that an explosion preceded the blaze, he said.

The ATF’s certified fire inspectors, requested by the state Fire Marshal’s Office, will “collect and analyze evidence with state-of-the-art technology,” Shumard said in an update Saturday.

CFIs are special agents with highly specialized training in investigating fires; their presence “has nothing to do with an explosion,” he said.

Building owner Mihail “Mike” Mihalios, 71, of Chicago said Monday that Anaya moved in around Christmas and lived by himself. Anaya was a handyman who painted houses and did maintenance work, Mihalios said.

Mihalios also said he visited the building Thursday and everything looked fine, “everything was OK,” except that the electricity in the hallway was off. He found out that he owed about $142, paid the bill and the lights were back on in about 20 minutes, Mihalios said.

While he doesn’t know what caused the fire, Mihalios, for whom English is a second language, said he has suspicions about its origin.

“It is something miserable,” he said. “It was not like an accident, it was like something happened there, because an accident is an accident. This, I can’t understand what is going on over there.”

The building, which he has owned since 2005, was insured and did have working smoke alarms, and he kept both the front and rear entrances cleared and unlocked, so authorities could enter if needed, Mihalios said.

He said police and state fire officials interviewed him for three or four hours Friday morning.

Mihalios said he doesn’t understand why the building burned so quickly and so completely in such a short time, and why it couldn’t be brought under control, given how close it was to the downtown fire station, which is less than a mile away at 110 W. Fifth St.

“I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why the fire damaged too much, totally collapsed the building. It was not a normal accident from cooking something,” Mihalios said. “I can’t understand what happened. This was not an accident. This is a terrible situation. I feel so sorry for what happened.”

Thirteen people lived in the building, but not all were home at the time of the fire, Shumard said Sunday.

Mihalios confirmed that the building had eight apartments.

According to Whiteside County property tax records, he 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.

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

The city will keep East Third/state Route 2 closed from First to Fifth avenues until investigators have cleared the scene and the building is demolished.

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 must 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., and 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.

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.