By Dawn Rhodes
11:45 PM EDT, November 4, 2011
One person was dead and another injured in a fire at a Lakeview East apartment building this evening, but the actions of the injured victim might have saved others.
The fire in a four-story multi-unit apartment building in the 500 block of West Wellington Street began about 5:30 p.m.
One person died and one was initially considered in critical condition following the fire, according to the Chicago Fire Department’s media affairs office. The second patient was later upgraded to fair-to-serious condition at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, where the first victim was pronounced dead.
The fire on the building's ground floor was contained to one apartment, according to the Fire Department.
Injured resident Michael Mejia, 27, heard the building's fire alarm go off and came into the second-floor hallway to see what was happening. But few others seemed to be concerned.
"Everyone went back into their apartments like it was nothing," Mejia said, speaking from his hospital bed. "My neighbor across the hall said it was probably just burning food."
Mejia and a neighbor went outside to the front of the building and saw flames shooting out of a ground-floor apartment. Without second-guessing himself, he said, he raced back into the building to warn his neighbors.
"I just said, I can't sit and watch this building fill with smoke and not do anything," Mejia said, who only moved into the building three weeks ago. "I just wanted to make sure everyone had a fighting chance to get out."
The smoke was too thick on the ground floor, so the Navy veteran raced through the hallways of the upper three floors of the four-story building, knocking on each door and directing residents to the rear staircase away from the concentrated smoke in the front of the building.
Inhaling the soot and smoke, Mejia even stopped two residents from jumping out a second-floor window to escape, he said.
"I just said, 'Stick your head out the window, take a deep breath and get to the back,' " Mejia said.
Mejia finally left the building himself once he was sure he'd reached every door. Once outside, he struggled to catch his breath and began feeling faint. Paramedics transported him to Illinois Masonic where he remained Friday night, being treated for smoke inhalation.
Residents outside the building Friday night said they were informed their apartments were still habitable, but some were seen leaving the building with suitcases and pets. Residents also said the deceased victim was an elderly man.
"We used to see him out front smoking," said Arlett Castillo, who lives on the second floor.
Castillo, 23, said she had come downstairs to get her laundry when she heard the smoke alarm go off in the ground-floor apartment. Minutes later, the building alarm went off and she went downstairs to call 911.
"We went out the back door, came down the alley and we saw the flames," she said. "The glass was breaking from the flames."
Fire and police officials were still on the scene as of 9:30 pm. Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the cause of the fire was under investigation.
Mejia said his four years of military training gave him the skills he needed to act under pressure.
"I couldn't ignore a fire alarm in my building and I didn't know what was going on," he said. "I was willing to risk my life to make sure everyone else got out."
Tribune reporter Liam Ford contributed.
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