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Chief: Still searching for fire’s cause

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Evanston Fire Chief Greg Klaiber says investigators are still interviewing witnesses to try to determine the cause of a fire that gutted the former Catholic Woman's Club building at 1560 Oak Ave. Tuesday night.

Klaiber says he had to order the building demolished immediately after the fire because it was unstable.

The north end was leaning toward the Marguerita Inn next door, and "one of the peaks of the roof on the east end was sinking" — sagging to much that the change was visible from hour to hour after the blaze.

In addition, he said, there was a chimney more than 30 feet tall in the center of the building that was left without any support after the fire.

While the demolition may make it harder to determine the fire's cause, Klaiber says, the safety risk made the decision unavoidable.

The chief said he hopes a video of the fire provided by a neighbor who lived in the building just to the south at 1101 Grove St. may help shed light on the cause and said the department's fire prevention bureau is working with private investigators from the owner's insurance company on the case.

Klaiber said the renovation work being done on the building may have been a factor. "Anytime you have contracting hapening on a site you need to interview every contractor about what they were doing and when they were doing it.

Workers had been stripping paint from the exterior of the building, and depending on how that work is conducted it can be the cause of a fire, but Klaiber said it wasn't yet clear whether stripping work had been done on the day of the building burned.

"What was being done the day and evening of the fire, how long the contractors were there and what they were doing, we're still gathering all of that," he added.

The chief said the condition of the inside of the structure — where old plaster-covered walls had been stripped back to the wooden studs as part of the renovation process — may have been a factor in the extensive damage from the fire.

Plaster is an insulating material and would tend to slow a fire's spread.

In addition, Klaiber said, the old-fashioned balloon construction technique used on the 130-year-old structure made it easy for the fire to spread throught the building.

Responding to a report that someone had been seen being led away from the fire scene in handcuffs, Klaiber said he understood that a homeless person had been found sleeping on the front porch of the building.

"But the building itself was secure and locked with nobody inside," the chief said, and the first fire crews on the scene found the rear of the building in flames.

Police Cmdr. Tom Guenther said the man sleeping on the front porch was known to the workmen on the project who'd let him sleep there overnight and routinely asked him to leave in the morning when work began.

Guenther says police questionned the man but determined he had nothing to do with the fire.

Above: Workers this morning examined the area where the rear of the burned structure joins the new addition that was being built to house part of a museum planned for the site.

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