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Elevator in Fire Tragedy Removed Without Permit: 'He Didn't Have a Chance'

By  Kelly Bauer and Howard Ludwig | December 14, 2015 7:26am | Updated on December 15, 2015 9:03am

 Daniel Capuano fell two floors through an elevator shaft at a fire Monday morning at 92nd and Baltimore, authorities said.
Daniel Capuano fell two floors through an elevator shaft at a fire Monday morning at 92nd and Baltimore, authorities said.
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DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer

SOUTH CHICAGO — The owner of a building where a Chicago firefighter was killed early Monday could face prosecution due to unauthorized construction that was underway — including removing an elevator without a permit, officials said.

Firefighter Daniel Capuano plunged two stories down the empty elevator shaft and died around 3 a.m. Monday. He was battling a smoky blaze in the warehouse in the warehouse in the 9200 block of South Baltimore Avenue when he fell into the open shaft.

RELATED: Friends Remember Chicago Firefighter Daniel Capuano of Mount Greenwood

The Department of Buildings responded to the scene and found that "unauthorized work was being performed at the site, including complete removal of the elevator and other structural alterations," department spokeswoman Mimi Simon said in an email.

"The building owner did not obtain the proper building permits for the work being performed, which would have included a permit for the removal or demolition of a conveyance device (e.g. an elevator)."

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the Building Department will deal with potential violations, but the department has been left "sad and concerned" by the tragedy.

"All we can say is if there had been a barrier in place, the fireman probably would not have fallen in the hole because they're feeling for things like that in the smoke," Langford said. "But, there was no barrier.

"He did not have a chance. He just walked into the hole. He had no warning that he was going to be entering a dangerous area, and that is very unfortunate."

Building owners, whether they have permits or not, should "always" have barriers to keep people from falling into holes, Langford said, calling it "common sense" that more people should adopt.

City officials say the most recent building owner listed on records is a Fred Baker. He did not respond to messages left at phone numbers listed on permits obtained for other work at the building.

On September 11, the city issued a permit for the installation of three doors, the patching and repair of 80 square feet of drywall, the patching of a concrete window sill and the installation of four glass block windows, according to city officials.

Two electrical permits were issued Sept. 4 and Sept. 10 to install lights, outlets and switches, according to city officials.

But there was nothing filed to remove the elevator in the shaft where Capuano fell.

The 42-year-old husband and father of three children is the first Chicago firefighter to die on the job since Walter Patmon Jr. died of a heart attack when he returned from a call to his South Side fire station on Nov. 11, 2012. Capt. Herbert T. Johnson died while fighting an extra-alarm house fire on Nov. 2, 2012, in Gage Park. In 2010, firefighters Edward Stringer and Corey Ankum died when a roof collapsed on them while battling a blaze at 1744 E. 75th St.

Chuck Dai, 65, who owned the 75th Street building, was sentenced to six months in jail after he pleaded guilty to contempt of court charges for failing to make court-ordered repairs to the building. In 2007, building inspectors found Dai's building vacant and ticketed him for 14 building code violations, noting that the roof was rotted. 

Fire Commissioner Joe Santiago said Capuano, a Mount Greenwood resident, also worked as a firefighter in southwest suburban Evergreen Park. He previously worked as a firefighter in suburban Lemont and Palos Park, a Fire Department spokesman said.

"It's devastating to the family," Santiago said. "We hope you can keep the Capuano family in your prayers and the department members that worked with him."

Santiago said Capuano was among firefighters who were battling heavy smoke on the second floor of warehouse at 92nd Street and Baltimore Avenue. Seeing holes in the floor, the firefighters "gave out an emergency alert to be careful" about the time Capuano "just walked into the elevator shaft and just fell" two floors to the basement, Santiago said.

Firefighters were "able to remove [Capuano] quickly and get him to the ambulance."

 Firefighter Dan Capuano died in a fire Dec. 14, 2015 in South Chicago.
Fatal Fire
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Capuano was taken to Christ Hospital in serious condition about 3 a.m. and was pronounced dead from trauma at 4:25 a.m., Santiago said.

The firefighter was assigned to Tower Ladder 34 at the firehouse at 7974. S. Chicago Ave.

The fire's cause is under investigation, officials said. When the Dept. of Buildings completes its investigation, it will hand its findings over to the courts for prosecution, Simon said. 

A memorial fund was set up early Monday afternoon for Capuano's family by the Ende, Menzer, Walsh & Quinn Retirees' Widows' and Children’s Assistance Fund.

The fund will deliver immediate financial assistance to the Mount Greenwood family later today. Supporters are also asked to contribute additional monetary support through the online fundraiser.

Kathleen Tomaszewski, principal at Queen of Martyrs Catholic School in Mount Greenwood, said Capuano's two sons, Nicholas (seventh grade) and Andrew (eighth grade), attend the school, and his daughter Amanda is a sophomore at nearby Mother McAuley High School.

A spokeswoman for the high school said Capuano's wife, Julie (Hauser) Capuano, graduated from McAuley in 1990.

"They are a wonderful family," Tomaszewski said, her eyes red from crying. "They are a very faith-filled family."

She said Julie Capuano successfully battled cancer in recent months and she most recently saw Dan Capuano at parent-teacher conferences. Her students were making condolence cards for the family on Monday and planned a prayer service at 1 p.m.

Capuano also offered to maintain the off-ice training facility for the St. Jude Knights. Both of his sons played for the youth hockey program since they were about 7 years old, said A.J. Hernacki, the club's assistant youth hockey director.

"It's been a really tough morning. This guy did so much for our club and our kids," said Hernacki, who has coached both of Capuano's boys.

Hernacki last was saw Dan Capuano on Saturday at a hockey game at The Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills. He said Capuano helped to offset the cost of travel hockey for his two children by maintaining the workout facility that was often damaged by flying pucks and a leaky roof.

"It's the kind of work nobody knows about," Hernacki said.

Monday morning, a hockey net sat next to the side of the family's brick Mount Greenwood home.

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