WEST HUMBOLDT PARK — A massive fire that ripped through a two-block long flea market left a hole in the community Tuesday.
Buyers Flea Market was not only a place for residents in the neighborhood to get nearly anything good imaginable at a bargain, but was a centerpiece of the community.
"This is like a monument in the neighborhood," said 48-year-old Donnetta Davis, who has been going to the market on weekends since her childhood. "It's the center. It combines all neighborhoods together."
The destruction of the market also means the loss of hundreds of jobs for the vendors and their employees who set up shop every weekend in the already struggling neighborhood.
"Everybody's got ties to this place," Davis said. "It's a peaceful place."
The flea market, which has been operating at 4545 W. Division Street since the '80s, was destroyed during a fire that started about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and burned into the night.
Thick black smoke from the blaze caused by more than 100 burning cars — specifically their tires — was visible from miles away throughout Tuesday.
Even the alderman of the ward, Emma Mitts (37th), was a frequent visitor to the flea market and brought her mother shopping there every Sunday. She calling the fire "terrifying."
Mitts said she was alerted of the fire by someone in the mayor's office and she rushed to market.
"We come here and I get my pet food and walk around and get ice cream," Mitts said. "For the Hispanic community, most of them bring their families. It's an outing, like a Sunday outing ... It's going to be a loss for the community here."
Residents can go to a somewhat nearby Wal-Mart, but the deals found at the flea market couldn't be matched, according to Mitts.
"A lot of people bring their kids here if you can't afford expensive prom dresses," Davis said. "They had all kinds of stuff. Where can you find these types of bargains at? It's hard. Our department stores are closed."
The market, which started out with eight vendors on the roof of an old parking garage, according to its website, grew to include hundreds of dealers.
Those dealers were left in shock, scrambling on what to do about their loss of inventory and in many cases livelihood.
The market had 11 aisles and 15-20 shops per aisle, according to Julie Rodriguez, who operated a stand selling babies' clothing. Rodriguez said she lost $25,000 worth of merchandise in the fire.
"I'm numb now," said 55-year-old Duwayne Randolph, who ran two stands in the flea market. "Every Sunday you had the same people coming through and they supported us ... This was like their mall. It's a diverse crowd."
Randolph, a father of three, opened his shops three years ago and had two employees.
"One was a young girl who just found out she was pregnant," he said. "That was her income. It's hard."
After the initial shock of the fire eased, many of the vendors began gathering together to figure out their next step, as it appeared everyone in the group did not have insurance on their merchandise.
Vendors began quickly putting together a makeshift list to begin to unite in hopes of getting some compensation.
"We're all coming together and signing our names and numbers to form a union, so we can get the property owner to help us. He has insurance, and he can't ignore all of us," said Patricia Rosales, who ran a small women's clothing stand.
This is the second fire that's damaged the market, according to Mitts. The first occurred in the '90s, she said.
"The owner told me they have to rebuild again," Mitts said Tuesday. "‘There's nothing he can say now, but the whole building will come down. There’s nothing they can save and they won’t know anything further until tomorrow what their plan is.”
One person was rescued during the extra-alarm fire, according to fire officials.
The woman, who was trapped in a bathroom, called 911 from the bathroom reporting that she was trapped, according to Deputy Fire Commissioner Richard Ford.
The woman was evaluated at the scene and refused medical treatment, Ford said.
The cause of the fire was under investigation Tuesday.
According to city building records, the flea market failed a 2014 inspection that found broken concrete in various parts of the building, including the parking lot.
"Failed to grade and drain surface to prevent accumulation of stagnant water," city records read. " Parking lot — broken concrete, with potholes."
The online records don't indicate what steps were taken to fix the violations, but a permit was issued in 2012 to make "repairs to an existing parking ramp per architects plans."
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