John Walker's Electronic House

Chicago Story #2: Fire

by on May.30, 2007, under The Rest

One evening, sitting in Kim and Nick’s beautiful basement, Nick and I were flicking through channels, juggling the double-TiVo to keep track of the baseball, as well as the remarkable output of a gay channel we’d stumbled on. You know, like you do. At around 9pm, Kim came down and asked if we could flick over to the news to catch the headlines.

WGN’s news led with a story about a building that had caught fire somewhere on the west side of the city. We watched the exciting flames and billowing smoke, and Kim asked Nick, “Hey, where’s W. Caroll St? Nick looked blankly for a moment, and then both their faces burst with realisation at the same time. “That’s CPE!” they both exclaimed.

A few days before, Kim had been telling me about some friends of Nick’s who had set up a business, CPE. They offered unsigned bands recording studios at affordable rates, complete with loan of all the equipment they might need. They rented the fourth floor of a five storey building on… W. Carroll.

Nick gave them a call to see if all were alright, and beyond being shaken and somewhat devastated, no one was hurt. In fact, the fire (which looks deeply like arson) took place in the early morning – a time when no band, nor anyone working with a band, was likely to be around.

The next day, late afternoon, Nick’s phone rang. It was the CPE guys. The fire marshals had told them that if they wanted to go into the building, now was their only chance, as the next day the building inspectors would arrive and never allow anyone in again. They were phoning everyone to get a hand shifting stuff out before dark.

Why was there stuff? The fire had destroyed the two three-storey buildings next to the five-storey in which their business was housed, where it had started on the third floor. This had, I’m told, created a pocket of CO2 on the fourth floor that caused the fire to go around it and burn the fifth floor next. Boggling. Apparently a great deal of their equipment was recoverable, even if the building was not. Nick, motivated by helping his friends, leapt to action. Kim, motivated by getting some awesome photographs of the inside of a burned out building, leapt into action as much as someone six months pregnant can. I followed, because that’s what I do.

So here’s what had happened:

Next to the taller building, the two smaller ones were all but gone. Just half-walls and rubble. The five-storey stood more firmly, but without glass in the windows, and soot everywhere. A doorway led into a dark opening, and some wooden stairs, that had impossibly survived.


We cautiously made our way up, stopping on the third floor to have a look. A doorway from the stairwell looked into a vast, empty room, made almost entirely of embers. The floor was missing in huge areas, and a foot put down would remove an awful lot more. It looked amazing.

The fourth floor, while not burned to bits, was hardly undamaged. Lots had burned, and everything had been cooked by the intense heat from above and below. It looked an awful lot like this:


A sad story: On the way in a guy asked me to take his photograph in front of a poster that had survived on the stairwell wall. In the process of trying, I dropped my camera, causing the lens to smash into a million pieces. The good news is it meant I got to buy a new camera in the amazing Half Price America (“Everything’s 50% off! Buy now before the complete collapse of the economy!”). The bad news is I could take no pictures, and so what you see here are Kim’s excellent snappings.

We explored the rooms, checking the floors before putting our weight on them, each of them looking remarkable where the effects of the fire had decorated with elaborate patterns. It was peculiarly haunting, like discovering the entombed remains of a 2007 civilisation in the distant future. Regular, familiar objects reduced to ash-coloured ghosts.



Kim and I explored, rather than helped. She had the rather valid reason of being heavily pregnant (although one might argue such an excuse should probably have kept her from being in the building in the first place). I was just being amazed at the amazing sights, and pretending I was checking Kim was OK.

We stood in one back room, staring in amazement at the bookshelves, and a clipboard on the wall that had been cooked brown but not burned. It was all hypnotising, as people busied around us, grabbing amps and drum kits and lugging them down the stairs. Kim looked up and nonchalantly said to me, “There’s a fire up there.” I looked up at where she was pointing, and indeed there it was. A little fire dancing in the rafters of the room we were in. How pretty. Waking up suddenly, I went to find a fire extinguisher. It was apparently on the bottom floor, and so I ran down the stairs alerting everyone I met. Maybe it was my odd accent, maybe it was their rock-addled brains, but no one seemed that phased by the news that the building we were in was currently on fire. Until I found Nick on the bottom floor, who flew into Action Hero mode, and learned that the fire extinguisher was apparently in the very room I’d started in. We ran back up, and Nick grabbed the extinguisher and aimed it at the flames, which had now spread further, and were very close to lighting a main beam in the room.

The extinguisher was empty. In a moment of fantastic madness, Nick became possessed by the spirit of every gunfight when the bullets are gone, and the only thing left to do is throw the gun. He threw the red canister like an American football, and perfectly nailed the shot, wedging the extinguisher into the beams on top of the fire. In fact, he almost snuffed them out. But, you know, didn’t. Sort of creating a big red bomb.

Nick got to cry, “Evacuate the building!”, as we attempted to shepherd people toward the stairs and down. This wasn’t easy. In complete reversal of every school fire drill, rather than being sternly told to leave everything we own in the rooms and file outside slowly, people yelled, “Grab an amp and run!”

So we all grabbed hold of something heavy to make one last run out the place, and called the fire brigade. Then people had to go back in and get the guy out who had decided he was going to rescue the last drum kit. The fire brigade turned up and ran in, and we all stood outside while the building’s owner, a twenty-something girl who had inherited it from her father, came down to watch. It was a sad story, really. She had hoped to fulfill her father’s wishes and use the building as an arts centre. However, others in the Italian family (Family?) had other ideas. This, of course, had nothing to do with the fire. Obviously.


The fire fighters told the group that they didn’t recommend going back in, but if they insisted they’d likely be fine. We decided to call it a night, since it was now night, and made out way home to unsuccessfully try and shower off the smell of fire. A rather remarkable evening.

All the photos are by Kim, and are rather amazing. Can be seen here.

3 Comments for this entry

  • Mike Jennings

    Awesome story, great pictures. Really harrowing when something like that can be linked to someone so.. personally (I don’t know anyone in the story, but the story helps, definately) rather than some anonymous phone footage on the evening news. At least it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, I suppose.

  • Steve W

    Comments (as requested above):

    1) A good story (though not so good for the CPE people, I guess).You need to put yourself in harm’s way more often so we get more entries of this ilk.

    2) “Remarkable output” – chortle.

    3) The trails for Pirate Master don’t make it look half as good as the show you’re describing.

    That is all.

  • Mrs Trellis

    Kim’s photography is excellent. Pregnant women really can do anything, nowadays!

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