Highly trained ATF arson team investigating fatal Sterling fire

National Response Team offers state-of-the art fire origin technology

A search dog examines debris Tuesday, July 11, 2023, from a July 7 fire that destroyed an apartment building at 406 E. Third St. in Sterling.

STERLING – A specialized team of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators is helping determine the cause of Friday’s fatal apartment building fire, the federal agency said in a news release Tuesday.

Officials have not said publicly if arson is suspected in the fire at 406/408 E. Third St., which killed a 62-year-old tenant.

It is being investigated as a possible arson as a matter of course. Should the origin turn out to be suspicious, evidence will have been gathered and preserved so that criminal proceedings can be held.

City Manager Scott Shumard said he is concerned that people are misconstruing the ATF’s presence.

There is no indication that an explosion preceded this fire, Shumard has said.

While the ATF investigates bombings and other explosives, it also has a team of highly trained arson investigators and state-of-the-art technology that it uses to assist municipalities and other agencies with arson investigations.

The state Fire Marshal’s Office, which is investigating the cause of the fire along with the Sterling police and fire departments, asked the ATF’s Chicago Field Division to assist. At an ATF investigator’s suggestion Friday, the city asked the bureau’s National Response Team to join the investigation, Shumard and the ATF said.

The team consists of special agents, certified fire investigators, fire protection engineers, electrical engineers, forensic chemists, certified explosives specialists, an intelligence research specialist, a medic, an accelerant detection canine and the dog’s handler.

“The NRT is here to provide specialized resources to help determine the origin and cause of this fire,” team supervisor Christopher Forkner said in the release. “ATF is a force multiplier for our state and local law enforcement partners to assist them in their fire investigative duties working alongside our field division experts and employing state of the art technology.”

The city is grateful for the help, Shumard said.

“When the ATF offered their specialized fire investigative services to the city to assist in the investigation, we immediately extended an invite to them in order to provide the best possible investigation into the cause of this tragic fire,” he said in the release.

This is the 20th NRT activation this fiscal year and its 909th since the program began in 1978, according to the release.

In the past, the team has helped investigate incidents such as the Nashville “Christmas Day” bombing; more than 200 fire scenes resulting from civil unrest throughout the Midwest in 2020; a series of bombings in Austin, Texas, in 2018; and national-level tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon; the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta; the Oklahoma City bombing and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, according to the release.

Go to atf.gov to learn more.

Monday, city officials said the man who died in the fire was Juan Antonio “Tony” Anaya.

Building owner Mihail “Mike” Mihalios, 71, of Chicago said Anaya, a self-employed handyman and house painter, moved in around Christmas and lived by himself.

Another tenant, Kim Johnson, who jumped from her third-floor apartment to escape the flames, remained in critical condition at OSF St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford.

A man and a girl jumped to an adjacent roof and were rescued. They were treated for minor injuries and released.

The fire began about 2:20 a.m., apparently on the third floor of the circa 1920 building, which had eight apartments on the second and third floors and 13 tenants. There were two vacant commercial spots on the first floor.

While he doesn’t know what caused the fire, Mihalios said Monday that 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.”

He also said the building, which he has owned since 2005, had smoke alarms and two exits, both of which he kept unlocked.

The recovery of Anaya’s remains, the ongoing investigation, the instability of the building and its demolition, which will happen only after investigators are through with it, means the city will keep East Third/state Route 2 closed from First to Fifth avenues for several days. Truck traffic must access 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.

Two tenants in the adjacent building at 302 Fourth Ave. were evacuated during the fire and have not been allowed to move back in. 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 has said.

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.