Oak Lawn Police say they have tentatively identified a 49-year-old man who died Tuesday night after he was found engulfed in flames.
The sister of the man said it was definitely her brother, James Brewer, who was identified by the tattoos on his arms at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office after being burned beyond recognition.
“It is definitely my brother,” Debbie Palumbo said. “They took Jimmy to the Cook County Medical Examiner and when I mentioned his tattoos of his daughters’ names, the police said that it was him.”
Police received a 911 call around 9:39 p.m. Tuesday of a man on fire at 99th Street and Southwest Highway. Witnesses driving by stopped and tried to put out the fire on Brewer.
Burbank paramedics who were nearby were the first to arrive on the scene and extinguished the flames. They declared Brewer dead at the scene.
Palumbo confirmed that her brother had been homeless the past four or five years and had been living on the streets when not staying in local shelters. She was unaware that Brewer had been living in a small, makeshift shelter near some garbage Dumpsters adjacent to the unoccupied businesses at 9906 Southwest Highway.
“He would come over to our house and get up and leave without saying goodbye,” Palumbo said. “He’d just be gone. We never knew where he was staying.”
Palumbo said her brother had an alcohol problem. He'd been off alcohol for a while, but had recently started up again.
“We tried to help him but it got to the point that he was drinking 24/7,” she said. “He just bottomed out.”
Palumbo saw the ambulances and fire trucks sitting on Ridgeland Avenue when she stopped at the gas station across the street from where her brother had been found an hour earlier engulfed in flames.
She said the gas station employee told her a woman had burst in earlier screaming to call an ambulance because a man was on fire.
“For some reason when I heard that I knew it was my brother,” Palumbo said.
Oak Lawn police detectives called her about 1:30 a.m. and asked if she knew James Brewer.
“He used my address to receive mail and his ID has my address,” she said. “He’s been arrested before and called me from the Oak Lawn police station.”
Police told her that her brother had been burned over 90 percent of his body and asked if she had his dental records.
“I said he hadn’t been to a dentist for 100 years,” Palumbo said. “I told them he had a tattoo on his arm with his daughters’ names.”
It was then that she learned that her brother had been living in a shed next to some garbage Dumpsters. Police believe the enclosure contibuted to the concentrated location of the fire.
“The police said he must have gotten cold and started a fire to keep warm,” Palumbo said. “The fire caught something and within seconds it just went out of control.”
A man living in the apartments adjacent to the enclosed Dumpster area saw the fire and ran out to help her brother. Patrons from Bar Code 99 also ran out of the tavern to try to put out the flames.
“Someone brought a blanket to put out the fire,” she said.
The last time Palumbo saw her brother was on Sunday when he brought an Easter basket over for her 8-year-old daughter. Brewer would have turned 50 in May.
“He’d take her bike riding in the park,” she said. “He cared but the beer took the best of him.”
Palumbo said that Brewer’s two teenage daughters are devastated. His daughters left a wooden cross in the doorway of his shelter on Wednesday, which still held the acrid smell of smoke.
“I had my crying on and off earlier in the day,” Palumbo said. “I’m sure I’ll cry some more when I have his body.”
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