Sister Says Homeless Fire Victim Is Her Brother

Oak Lawn man who died after being engulfed in flames is James Brewer, sister says.

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.”

Sign up for Oak Lawn Patch breaking news alerts and follow us on Facebook.

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.”


  • Man Found Burning Near Dumpster Dies
  • A Family's Plea: 'Help Us Find Our Son'
  • Law Enforcement Pays Tribute to Illinois State Trooper James Sauter (Gallery)
  • POLICE BLOTTER: Man Offers Kids Lollipop in Men's Restroom and MORE
Nana April 04, 2013 at 12:07 PM
May James RIP! My sympathies to the family. My granddaughter and I would feed James and he was so kind and grateful. This is so sad.James is in Gods arms and warm now.
Justin Murray April 04, 2013 at 01:45 PM
My nephew was one of the people who tried to help he and a person were the ones who put the flames out not the fire department
butch walker April 04, 2013 at 07:23 PM
My nephew justin walker was the man from apt who helped put him out to
Maureen Hughes April 04, 2013 at 07:41 PM
So sad for you. Even though he was homeless he made a basket for his niece. RIP.
David Wilkins April 04, 2013 at 08:45 PM
Yes I feel so bad for the family.. I often drove by in that location and when ever I seen a person waiting or wanting change and I would always give him 5.00 and tell him to buy a lunch or meal. He was very nice and not mean like some have been when i would not give them enough but he was always thankful. May God hold his family and daughters in his arms while going through this horrible time..... I pray for them all.... Does anyone know of any funeral arrangements or anything? I would like to bring some flower's homless or not he is still one of God's Children and deserves the respect of other's. My saying is "even homeless people" YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOUR ENTERTAINING A ANGEL". and I feel Mr Brewster is that angel.
David Wilkins April 04, 2013 at 08:47 PM
Even though that was a good task on your nephew's pojnt but being a glory hound about something like this that is so drastic is just horrible. Everyone who tried to save him are hero's including the fire department. Is your nephew a medic? Firemen? That is not right to get recognition for some thing so horrible. Be proud of your nephew but stop gloating about it......
David Wilkins April 04, 2013 at 08:48 PM
AMEN and God Bless you.
David Wilkins April 04, 2013 at 08:49 PM
How many nephew's or nieces or uncles aunts tried to help this poor man. Who cares stop gloating about it and let the people and his family have peace, there will be plenty of time to get that recognition later ,, just be glad nothing happen to your nephew... Even if he tried to help....
Ann Last April 04, 2013 at 09:42 PM
May he rest in peace.
Justin Murray April 04, 2013 at 10:33 PM
I was not gloating about my nephew its definitly tragic what happend to this man all I was saying is they had the flames out on Mr Brewer before the paramedics arrived the article says burbank was first on scene and extinguished the flames and pronounced the man dead at the scene and that's not the case if you read the first article about this story read the comments and both people who were the first on the scene talk about what happened when burbank arrived my heart definitely goes out to the family of the deceased
Kelly Williams April 04, 2013 at 10:46 PM
We are not gloating about this at all. Do you have any idea how traumatic it was to watch a man burn to death? All we want is what happened to be told correctly.
Lorraine Swanson (Editor) April 04, 2013 at 11:25 PM
Everyone relax. I don't think Butch was gloating. I, personally, am very proud of the citizens that tried to help James. I'm comforted knowing there are still compassionate people in the world who would extend a helping hand to a stranger in trouble, even if it means risking injury or death to themselves. It's people like Justin and others that make Oak Lawn a great community.
Lynsey Lynne April 05, 2013 at 02:32 AM
Why are you making such a huge deal about other's making the claim that they helped this guy? Yet, you are not shy about letting people know that you helped him by giving him money? People shouldn't be made to feel guilty or bad for helping someone in need, no matter whatever the help given was. It's not like they are patting themselves on the back, other people are praising them. And they have every right to. The incident was tragic, as is very apparent. May the man rest in peace and may his family find comfort in the fact that when he needed help, many came to his aid. I personally find comfort in knowing that many people, although untrained, came to his aid. This is something I find to be a rare occurrence in these times. People are sometimes too afraid to give help. So, I say... Gloat away!!
dave bird April 05, 2013 at 12:46 PM
rest in peace james your in a better place now my heart goes out to your daughters and family.god bless you brother.
maggie brewer April 06, 2013 at 04:26 PM
Arrangements for a memorial are in the works. Won't be until about a week or so. Thank you for the kind words and thanks to those who helped Jim. He loved his daughters very much and did his best to make sure they knew that. We saw him on 3/28 and had a greet time and he had the girls rolling on the floor laughing.
Jeanne Blackman April 16, 2013 at 09:21 PM
James was my nephew. He was a sweet, loving person and a hard worker. But like so many others he had an addiction that got the best of him. Jim "Fought the good fight" to beat his addiction. In the end he was unsuccessful. His family was very supportive and wanted to help him. His disease and the sadness it caused him made him unable to accept that help. We will remember the sweet boy, the loving son, brother, husband , and father he was. We thank all of you for your supportive words and especially those who risked their own lives to try to help. Jeanne Blackman
Merrit April 25, 2013 at 06:05 PM
I am glad your nephew tried to help, Butch. This is a very sad story.
Lorraine Swanson (Editor) April 26, 2013 at 01:45 AM
James Brewer's family would like to invite those who tried to help him to his memorial service at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 27, at Our Lady of the Ridge Catholic Church at 10811 S. Ridgeland, Chicago Ridge. They wish to thank you personally and we are getting this message out there for them. http://patch.com/A-3SQs
Lorraine Swanson (Editor) April 26, 2013 at 01:48 AM
Very profound, David. I befriended a homeless man when I worked in Oak Park. My boss and I would stand outside having a smoke and Jim would appear out of nowhere, or when we mentioned his name. We'd turn around and there would be Jim. I used to say that Jim was an angel and God was testing us.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something