Berwyn firefighters assist with an apartment building fire on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, on Hannah Avenue at the corner of Roosevelt Road in Forest Park, Ill. | ALEXA ROGALS/Staff Photographer

A fire occurred about 1:30 p.m. in a three-story apartment building at 1141 Hannah Ave. on Jan. 10. 

Forest Park Fire Chief Bob McDermott said the cause of the fire is still under investigation and was contained to the three rear apartments, which were “heavily damaged by smoke, fire and water.” The fire appeared to start in the basement, according to a police report. McDermott said firefighters had to cut the building’s utilities, gas, electric and water. Eleven fire departments showed up to extinguish the flames.

“I don’t know when the families will be able to return,” he said in an email.

All of the approximately 20 tenants of the 12-unit building were evacuated safely, and many were transported to the Howard Mohr Community Center to keep warm. Emergency personnel provided those who remained outside the building with hot chocolate, cookies, and jackets.

Building manager Pali Melani said he was outside the building when he saw smoke coming from the first floor. He went inside and saw a “small fire” in the first-floor stairwell. Melani used a fire extinguisher to douse the flames but “all of a sudden it caught fire again,” he said.

He said he has no idea what caused the fire. Neither does building owner John Serritella.

“As quick as we can safely get everyone back in, we will,” Serritella said.

The Red Cross arrived about 2 p.m. to begin connecting tenants with temporary housing.

Tenant Parmander Kumar said he was watching TV with his wife and son in their third-floor unit around 1:45 p.m. when he saw smoke and “just left” through the downstairs fire exit.

Kumar, an Indian immigrant, who also said he didn’t know what caused the fire, worried about recovering “my TV, passport, green card, my family’s green card” from inside.

Tenant Jessica Ellison said she was asleep when she heard firefighters banging on her second-floor apartment door. She said she inhaled “a ton” of smoke and that firefighters wanted to transport her to the hospital but, “I don’t have time for that right now,” she said. Ellison was evacuated safely in her pajamas. 

“I’m traumatized,” she said. “To wake up to something like that was terrible. I’m still in shock.”