Witness says Sterling fire victim was his neighbor and friend

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

One man is dead after an early morning fire in Sterling. Investigators suspect the victim was a homeless man trying to keep warm in a vacant duplex.

As of Tuesday afternoon, his name had not been released.

Investigators combed through the duplex at 204 West 7th Street in Sterling on Tuesday morning. The building, believed to be vacant, caught fire with a man inside.

Related:  Man’s body found in burned Sterling duplex

"I saw the fire started upstairs," said neighbor Eddie Bailey. "The first thing I thought about was the gentleman that lived upstairs."

It was a sickening scene around 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Investigators think the duplex is a total loss.

"The fire seemed to get worse and worse by the minute," Bailey said.

Bailey was remembering his friend. The man seemed to live in the abandoned duplex. They talked about car repairs and everyday things.

The building, however, had no gas or utilities hooked up.

"How are you going to make it through the winter with no heat, no water?" Bailey asked.

Firefighters discovered the body in a second floor bedroom. It was near where the fire started. He was apparently using propane cylinders inside for cooking and heating.

"With the amount of heat and flames when first crews got here, it was not survivable," said Bill Milby, Rock Falls Fire Department.

Bailey says that his friend liked to sit on a porch during warm summer evenings. But it was a very cold night that claimed his life as he struggled to keep warm.

"We were just shocked," said Julie Penne of Sterling.

Penne brought her camera to capture the aftermath.

"We thought somebody still lived there," she said. "We didn't know it was abandoned at all."

She grew up in the duplex during happier years. On Tuesday, she was saddened by tragic events.

"He must have been desperate just trying to keep warm," she said.

Investigators might never know why a man died alone in this fire. It's a painful realization for a friend like Eddie Bailey.

"Some people just can't afford the heat to stay warm," Bailey said.  "It's a matter of life and death in some cases. What happened is a perfect example of how staying warm can get you killed."

It was a tragic, toxic blend of winter, homelessness and fire.