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Officials look to cause of fire that killed members of 'perfect family'
By Jamie Sotonoff and Lee Filas | Daily Herald Staff

Scene of early Tuesday morning fatal fire at the intersection of Park Street and Evergreen in Arlington Heights.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Scene of early Tuesday morning fatal fire at the intersection of Park Street and Evergreen in Arlington Heights.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Scene of early Tuesday morning fatal fire at the intersection of Park Street and Evergreen in Arlington Heights.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Scene of early Tuesday morning fatal fire at the intersection of Park Street and Evergreen in Arlington Heights.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Scene of early Tuesday morning fatal fire at the intersection of Park Street and Evergreen in Arlington Heights.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Scene from an Arlington Heights house fire this morning.

 

ABC 7 Chicago

Patricia Finnerty

 

Garrett Finnerty

 

Kevin Finnerty

 

Garrett Finnerty

 

Submitted photo

Garrett FInnerty and his father, Kevin

 

ABC 7 Chicago

A memorial for the Finnerty family on the sign of Westgate Elementary School in Arlington Heights

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/2/2009 7:30 AM | Updated: 6/3/2009 8:06 AM

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A third family member is dead and police continue to believe the Arlington Heights fire that claimed three lives early Tuesday morning was "suspicious" and set by someone inside the home.

Kevin Finnerty died at 4:40 a.m. early Wednesday morning at Loyola Medical Center, officials from the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office said.

Finnerty spent Tuesday in critical condition and on life support, Police Cmdr. Kenneth Galinski said, after he was discovered on the first floor near the kitchen, badly burned with a bad cut on his head.

Patricia "Trish" Finnerty, 41, and the couple's son Garrett, 11, died in the same fire.

Autopsies are scheduled at 9 a.m. for all three of the Finnertys, medical examiner officials said.

The family's other two children - 12-year-old Bridgit and 6-year-old Pierce - escaped the flames with nonlife-threatening injuries.

The family dog also escaped the home uninjured.

Police believe the fire was deliberately set by someone inside the home, not by someone who broke into the house.

"Our investigation at this point has more of a focus on the family dynamic than someone other than a family member being involved in criminal activity," said Police Capt. Nicholas A. Pecora Jr. The house was locked from the inside when police got there, he said.

But, "we are keeping all avenues open," he said.

Arlington Heights Fire Chief Glenn Erickson classified the fire as "suspicious" because of the burn patterns the fire made in the house. He said it appears the fire started in the master bedroom and "may not be accidental in nature." The state fire marshal's office was on the scene with arson investigators throughout the day Tuesday.

Still, it could have been even worse. As 12-year-old Bridgit Finnerty got out of bed around 3 a.m. to get a drink of water, she heard a loud popping sound. Her 6-year-old brother, Pierce, heard it too and came out to investigate.

It was a fire. They screamed for their parents and their 11-year-old brother, but as the smoke thickened, Bridgit opened a second-floor window. She crawled out onto a little roof over the home's front door and helped her brother out. Then she jumped the 10 feet or so to the ground.

Police say she ran down the street on a hurt ankle to the home of Dr. Willis Jensen, who called 911 and grabbed an aluminum ladder. He got to the Finnerty house as police were arriving, and together they rescued Pierce from the roof just as firefighters were pulling up and flames were shooting out of the second-story windows.

Bridgit and Pierce Finnerty were released from the hospital Tuesday with minor cuts and bruises, police said. Extremely traumatized, they are staying with relatives.

Pecora said the Cook County medical examiner is expected to reveal the cause of death for Patricia and Garrett Finnerty sometime Wednesday.

At a news conference late Tuesday morning in front of the charred, two-story, white brick and frame home, Galinski dismissed rumors that an intruder had gotten into the house. The home with a white picket fence and a minivan in the driveway was surrounded by yellow crime scene tape, and the Major Crimes Assistant Team was there collecting evidence.

As people in the tight-knit neighborhood gathered around the house, some broke down in tears, calling the Finnertys "a perfect family" who were close and well-liked.

Trish Finnerty was the college/career counselor at Libertyville High School, and Garrett was a Cub Scout who also played in the Arlington Heights youth baseball league, where his dad was his coach. Neighbors said you'd always see the family together playing, fixing up the house or working on the yard.

"This is just such a loss," said Cindy Erickson, a neighbor whose son was a friend of Garrett. "We're just praying for the family."

Erickson said Garrett was always so kind to her son, who has special needs, and that Trish was always friendly and asking about her family.

"She had a very good heart," Erickson said.

Westgate Elementary School, where Garrett attended fifth grade and Pierce attends kindergarten, sent automated messages to its parents Tuesday morning, saying the school district's crisis plan has been activated, with counselors and social workers available to anyone who needs it.

In his message, Principal Kevin Dwyer said many people are "carrying very heavy hearts today."

The fifth-graders are scheduled to have a graduation dinner this week, as they prepare to enter middle school.

"We realize it's going to be a very emotional day, but we're trying to go about our business," said Arlington Heights District 25 Assistant Superintendent Carla Cumblad.

Arlington Heights Village President Arlene Mulder called Tuesday's news "tragic."

"This community is all about families and people and community," Mulder said. "We stick together in good times and bad. It's tragic and no community is immune."

Officials at Libertyville High School released a statement from Co-Principal Jim Whittington that said the school was "deeply saddened by the loss of Trish Finnerty and the horrible tragedy that has impacted her family."

"She formed incredible bonds with our students and staff," it read. "She ... formed many relationships with our parents and students, and was instrumental in helping our seniors gain admission to college. She will be deeply missed and her family continues to be in our thoughts and prayers."

Kevin Finnerty is an artist, known particularly for his watercolors. One of his better-known pieces is one of North School Park, an old Arlington Heights park famous for being a community gathering place and for its holiday light show at Christmastime. The painting was commissioned by the Arlington Heights Park District Foundation in 2001, which made prints and sold them as a fundraiser.

Garrett, meanwhile, recently earned the Arrow of Light and transitioned from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, said his Cub Scout den leader and neighbor Suzanne Duman.

"He always had a wonderful sense of humor. He could always make all the boys laugh and the adults, too," said Duman, who led Garrett's den for four years. "As soon as he walked in, all the boys would gather around him."

Duman said Garrett went on camping trips and was excited to earn badges in art and woodworking.

His parents were also active, leading the den of Westgate Elementary School students five years ago. Kevin helped the Scouts earn their art badge, and Patricia started an annual muffin bake that has since expanded to include all the members of Pack 130.

"They were a normal family, a wonderful family," said neighbor Doris Cowman. "They were just your everyday little wonderful family with three kids."

Family friend Tom McDonnell from Arlington Heights was in shock.

"They are a wonderful family who couldn't be nicer people," McDonnell said. "The whole thing about all this - what can you say?"