Chief awards neighbor for heroism in Naperville apartment fire

The residential blaze that killed a Naperville resident last month could have been even worse, the city’s top fire official said, if not for the prompt response of a neighbor.

Chief Mark Puknaitis distinguished Juan Carlos Hernandez Tuesday night with the Fire Chief’s Citizen Award, recognizing his actions as flames consumed an apartment at 108 Douglas Ave. late on March 21.

The fire claimed the life of Cariene Jones, 39, who lived in the apartment with her son Jelani McClain, a sophomore and varsity basketball player at Naperville North High School.

In his presentation before the City Council and audience members, Puknaitis said this:

“At approximately 11:25 p.m. on March 21, 2014 Mr. Juan Carlos Hernandez and his wife, residents at 112 Douglas, were preparing for bed. His wife looked out their bedroom window and thought she saw a fire in the building next door, at 108 Douglas, where coincidentally they once lived. He told her it was probably just headlights from a passing car that she saw. She insisted it was a fire, so he also took a look out the window and saw she was right.

“He told his 10-year-old daughter Katia to call 911 and for everyone to exit the building. He then ran outside, warning fellow tenants to evacuate the building as he went and entered the 108 building. Mr. Hernandez knocked on the apartment doors while yelling the building was on fire and for everyone to get out immediately. He went to the unit where the fire was, and no one was answering the door. He grabbed the fire extinguisher and proceeded to kick the door a couple of times before it opened. He tried to use the fire extinguisher, but the amount of smoke he was met with made it difficult to breathe. He went back outside for fresh air, then re-entered the building to try again, all the while yelling for anyone inside the unit to get out.

“Once again the amount of smoke forced him to go back outside. He was going to try again, but fire crews were already on the scene.

“This incident had less than a 5-minute fire department response. The fire was extinguished within 5 minutes upon making entry into the building. However, one rescue was made but the patient succumbed to her injuries and perished.

“This is another reminder of all the injuries and quick spread that an active fire can entail, and the importance of early detection, activation of the 911 system, and rapid evacuation. Although I don’t advocate anyone re-entering a burning building, there was a judgment call that had to be made in this incident, which I feel led to the remainder of the residents of this building being brought to safety…

“Mr. Hernandez, the quick actions that you provided in activating the 911 system and evacuating residents during a structure fire at a multi-unit apartment building at 108 Douglas St. were key factors in minimizing potential injury and loss of life.”

The presentation brought the council and the rest of those in the chamber to their feet with applause.

The Fire Chief’s Citizen Award is given “to groups for distinguished acts of meritorious service to their fellow citizens and to their community, which promote the message of fire protection, fire prevention and life safety,” states a memo from Ruthi Sommers, a customer service assistant with the Fire Department.