There are no choices, and we are all at fault!

This Chigaco fire that killed six children raises a lot of questions about personal responsibility.

CHICAGO — Without electricity since May, the impoverished immigrant family living on the third floor of a brown brick apartment building was using candles for light.

About 12:20 a.m. Sunday, a candle started one of the city's deadliest and most heartbreaking fires in years. The blaze on Chicago's North Side moved fast through the three-bedroom apartment, killing six children ages 3 to 14, some of whom screamed "We're burning" as neighbors watched helplessly.

Without electricity since May? I didn't know that Child Protective Services approved of children living without electricity. For starters, I'm assuming they were in school. How did they do their homework? Or don't children have to do homework anymore?

The Fire Department says there weren't any smoke detectors, but the landlord says there were:

Orozco said the gutted apartment had no smoke detectors, but the landlord of the building said each unit was wired with the detectors at the time the tenants moved there.
"Wired with" would imply permanently installed smoke detectors hooked up to the power that was turned off. If that were true (many cities now require it because tenants are notorious for removing for other purposes -- or not replacing -- the batteries in battery units), then whose fault would the lack of power have been?

According to the World Socialist Web Site (IMO a questionable source) the landlord is well-connected politically:

The building is owned by a wealthy Chicago developer, Jay Johnson, who is proprietor of a number of apartment units in the area. He has contributed to the electoral campaigns of Democratic Party Alderman Joe Moore, and Moore in turn has appointed Johnson to the local planning and zoning commission. Johnson rejected responsibility, and has claimed that functioning smoke alarms were in place when the Ramirez family moved in and that it is the responsibility of the tenant to inform the landlord if the alarms malfunction or are missing.
Whether the above is true or not, Alderman figures prominently in most of the news accounts. Back to the LA Times:
Chicago Alderman Joe Moore, who walked through the building, said he was unable to find a smoke detector in the gutted apartment. Orozco said smoke detectors were placed in common areas of the building, and Moore said he saw smoke detectors in the apartment below the burned unit.

The owner of the building, developer Jay Johnson, said in a phone interview Sunday night that "we have working smoke detectors in all of our apartment units at the time the tenants sign their leases."

Looks like buck passing to me. It strikes me that permanently wired smoke detectors don't disppear. So it seems that either the landlord is lying (something on which previous inspection records might shed light), or they just haven't found them because of the severity of the fire damage, or else the tenants removed them and sold them to obtain extra cash.

Whether the family was here legally seems open to question:

A friend of one of the Ramirez children said their mother originally was from Mexico but the family had been in the United States for at least 16 years.
Not that the family's third world status would cause a fire, but raising children without electricity... Wasn't that issue supposed to have been pretty much put to rest back in the days of FDR and "rural electrification"?

Not that I'm criticizing people for their choices. It wasn't that long ago that modern plumbing came into wide use; as I mentioned in a previous post, my father installed running water and a toilet into my grandparents' house back in the 30s and they told him they didn't even need it.

As I pointed out, today my grandfather would be arrested for raising his kids in a sod home.

But in the modern world these things are not choices. They are contradictions. The individual no longer has a right to forgo electrical power, or running water, or sewage. If he does not have these things, larger forces are said to be at fault. There is no choice. Thus, the family's lack of electricity was not the fault of the family for not paying the bill. And even if they removed the smoke detectors or otherwise made them dysfunctional, that too would not have been their fault.

The landlord is always at fault, and if he is not, then the power company is at fault. Or the city, the country, or all of us.

And of course Bush.

Have to blame someone.

Then there's the current obesity "epidemic."

New obesity research has found that too little sleep and fats from fast food can alter a person's biology, making them more susceptible to overeating and less active, said the International Association for the Study of Obesity.

"Research into obesity should be given top priority to have any hope of combating the global pandemic," said Arne Vernon, president of the association.

Vernon said millions of obese people were being discriminated against and stigmatized, and often denied access to medical services.

I blame McDonalds.

MORE: It occurs to me that the landlord might have been able to prevent the fire by evicting the tenants (for not paying their utilities or for using candles) as most leases have a standard clause prohibiting tenants from harming the property or creating or maintaining dangerous conditions.

However, could have have obtained an eviction? In many municipalities now, it is almost impossible to evict tenants, especially tenants with children. A New Jersey landlord told me that courts are now forbidden from issuing eviction judgments if that "might create homelessness."

Well, at least it's always the landlord's fault!

(It makes analysis easier.)

posted by Eric on 09.05.06 at 09:33 AM


According to a teacher of one of the victims that was interviewed by a reporter from a local news television news team (WLS), her student was doing homework by candlelight. She didn't state that she did anything to remedy the situation.

The fact that the family had been living without electricity was no secret to their neighbors. According to the Sun Times:

Neighbors of the Ramirezes said the family had run extension cords to hallway electrical sockets and had also asked to run lines into their neighbors’ units.

They were rebuffed.

Mary B.   ·  September 5, 2006 3:07 PM

A very thought-provoking post. There are some facts I can add and issues I might raise.

There's a better source for campaign donation issues than the World Socialist Web Site, and that's Marathon Pundit linking to some Rogers Park bloggers. It should also be noted that the Alderman in question is famous in Chicago for leading anit-Walmart ordinance and the ban on fois gras.

Also, some more details from the Sun Times article Mary B linked to:
-- The mother somehow managed to get out of the apratment with one child, but for some reason closed the door behind her
-- The family received rent assistance. Members of my wife's family (emigres from Russia) have rental assistance, and it's not as simple as holding out your hand. They come to inspect the unit that is being rented, and smoke detectors are pretty hard to miss.
-- Ald. Moore claims to have recently seen some of the other units in that building, and reported they all had smoke detectors. It seems awfully convenient that he had just happened along that particular building.
-- There is no indication yet why the family did not have electricity and did not ask for help paying utility bills when they were clearly willing to ask for help for other things.
-- A lot of people in the ward are frustrated with Ald. Moore for neglecting Rogers Park in favor of larger city issues. He's sort of like a Senator who forgets his constituents because he's too busy serving on the Foreign Relations Committee. With the fire, they fangs are out. A lot of people just assume that the landlord is a crony and must be at fault. Not that they are necessarily wrong, but there just isn't enough info yet to make that conclusion. Call it Alderman Moore Derangement Syndrome, only maybe not so crazy.

Anyway, I just thought I'd add that stuff because I'm a resident in the ward, though I'm a few miles from the neighborhood where this happened, and I've been following the story.

McKreck   ·  September 5, 2006 5:08 PM

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