Herbie Johnson died in a fire Friday night. He's seen here in the aftermath of a fatal fire in 2006. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: November 3, 2012 4:52PM
Editor’s note: Below is a Chicago Sun-Times story from March 30, 2006 about a deadly fire for which Capt. Herbert Johnson received the state’s Medal of Honor in 2007 for bravery.
4 kids die in S. Side apartment fire: Blaze thought to be electrical, smoke detectors not working, officials say
By Annie Sweeney
Behind the broken-out window of Lillie Harris’ second-floor apartment is a deep, black space left by the smoke and fire that rolled through Wednesday and killed her four young grandchildren.
Relatives of the children, including several young cousins, went to the 5400 block of South Honore in the hours after the fire, which also injured two adults. Family members identified the children as Lashawn Harris, 2; Marlese Glen, 6; Dontrell Harvest, 8, and Tykia Harvest, 9. They said Lashawn and Marlese were sisters, Dontrell and Tykia brother and sister.
“It was black; you couldn’t see nothing,” said landlord Deborah White, who lives on the first floor and watched firefighters carry out one of the girls. “There wasn’t no life in her. All that smoke.’’
Five people, including the children, died in fires here Wednesday.
The fire on Honore started at 7 a.m. on an enclosed rear porch near the bedroom where the children were sleeping. The cause was believed to be electrical because of a maze of extension cords found there, Fire Department officials said.
Also Wednesday morning, 43-year-old Robert Sanchez died in an apartment fire on the North Side in the 1700 block of North Whipple. The Cook County medical examiner’s office said Sanchez was pronounced dead at 8:20 a.m.
Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter said that neither the Whipple nor Honore apartments had functioning smoke detectors. Two smoke detectors in the Honore home were not working, one because it didn’t have a battery. White said the apartment was equipped with detectors and working batteries, but she was not sure if the batteries had been removed.
The Fire Department handed out smoke detectors and literature on Honore after the fire.
Everyone inside the Honore apartment was overcome by smoke and heat so intense that firefighters had to use thermal imaging equipment to find two of the victims; others were found by touch.
Two of the children were in bed, and two were on the floor between a dresser and the bed.
White, 56, said she woke up when she heard thumps on the floor from the children’s room above hers.
Alberta Harris, 50, Lillie Harris’ sister, was found on the porch by firefighters and taken to Stroger Hospital with bad burns on her face and hands, family said. Lillie Harris’ husband, Phil Hillman, 74, was found on a mattress in the front room. He was critically injured and also was at Stroger.
Vinicka Harvest, Dontrell and Tykia’s mother, escaped with her 3-year-old child in her arms. She said she heard Hillman, who was in the front of the house with her, say he was going back for the children.
Lisa Harris—Lillie Harris’ 18-year-old daughter, who got out on her own—also remembers hearing Hillman say he would get the kids. But then none of them came out.
“It was just crazy,” Lisa Harris said. “I was crying. I was hollering. I was trying to get back in there. When we came out ... we was looking for them...”
Lillie Harris, 51, and her son Odis Harris—the father of Dontrell and Tykia—left the home together to go to work about 90 minutes before the fire started. Lillie Harris did what she did every morning—she changed Lashawn’s diaper and gave her a bottle before putting her back down.
“I kissed Lashawn and I kissed Marlese on the forehead. They were closest to me,” she said.
Some who gathered on the block knew the children only by their nicknames: Honey, Shemama, ‘Lil Worm and Noodle. On Tuesday, the group had spent the afternoon racing around the block with their cousins who came over to play a game of “it.” They also pulled Honey around in a wagon.
Kiara Harris, an 11-year-old cousin who was there for the game of “it,” stood silently on Honore as older cousins graciously handled queries from the media about the children. Two tears slowly rolled down her face as she listened and watched everyone talk and share pictures of her cousins.
Dontrell and Tykia attended Fairfield Academy. Marlese attended Mays Academy.
Honey—LaShawn—smiled widely and had gorgeous eyes. She already had a fondness for purses and the phone at age 2. Dontrell was going to stay with his aunt this summer, and he had recently asked for Nike shoes, said Akila Harris, 21, Kiara’s sister.
“Tykia, she reminded me of me,” Harris said. “Marlese, she’s 6. She’d put a smile on your face. Lashawn, she was only 2 but had a heart like a 5-year-old.”
Down the block, Naomi Spicht, 78, slowly rubbed the arm of her longtime neighbor White as she comforted her.
“Things like this,” Spicht said quietly to her neighbor, “we still don’t understand. But we leave it in God’s hands.”