EAST CHICAGO | A towering fire destroyed several downtown businesses Saturday evening and forced authorities to temporarily close a section of Chicago Avenue, just east of Indianapolis Boulevard.
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland, who was on the scene, said the only known injury was to a firefighter who was struck by a shifting fire hose.
"It's now contained on all four sides, but everything in that jumble of businesses is a loss," Copeland said about 7:30 p.m.
Juan Puente, precinct committeeman for the neighborhood, said the fire is one more blow for the fabric of this once-thriving business district.
"It's tragic to see another area destroyed," Puente said. "This means a loss of jobs."
Large numbers of local residents stood in the March chill watching firefighters pour water on the flames. Residents of Hammond and other surrounding communities also were drawn to the scene by the black plume of smoke that could be seen for miles.
The East Chicago Fire Department first received a report of smoke about 4:30 p.m. Saturday from the building, which covers half of the 500 block of West Chicago Avenue between Tod Street and Railroad Street.
It houses Northwest Indiana Auto Glass and Northwest Indiana recycling. There also is a sign for a Taekwondo school on the building. Puente said he was unsure whether the school was active.
Ron Nieblas, who lives just north of the fire, said he smelled smoke about that time and heard several explosions.
Puente, who also lives nearby, said a fireball erupted from the recycling business, a one-story brick building.
Tencha Barrientes, who was dabbing tears from her eyes as the building burned, said she ran the recycling business. She said it was closed at the time.
Several businesses, including a Walgreens on Chicago Avenue, were closed and dark because of a power outage. Firefighters were spraying water on an electrical generator near the building.
While flames didn't touch businesses to west of the burning building, Puente expected they will sustain smoke damage, he said.
Homes to the north of the fire also were draped in acrid smoke. Puente said he was unaware of any evacuations.
Copeland thanked the Hammond Fire Department for the assistance it provided. He said the cause of fire is under investigation.