An Oak Lawn firefighter was on his way to work Wednesday when he received a call that a nearby home was ablaze.
He rushed to the scene, where he heard noises coming from the garage. The firefighter walked to the car inside, opened its door and saw a man in the front seat kill himself with a shotgun, authorities said.
"What he encountered this morning was horrific," Oak Lawn fire Chief George Sheets said.
Inside the burning home, emergency crews found the bodies of a couple in their 60s who had been shot. Fire and police officials spent most of the day searching for a 5-year-old boy who was unaccounted for. By late afternoon, officials said he, too, was found dead in the aftermath of the fire that gutted the small brick home in the 9800 block of South 51st Avenue in Oak Lawn.
Police said the only weapon recovered was the shotgun.
The man who shot himself was 36, and the other gunshot victims were a 68-year-old woman and a man in his 60s, the Cook County medical examiner's office said. It was unclear whether the boy had been shot.
All were pronounced dead at the scene.
Oak Lawn police said those killed were family members, but authorities didn't disclose their names, their relationships to one another or a motive for the shootings, pending an investigation.
The South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force and the state fire marshal are assisting with the inquiry.
Autopsies are scheduled for Thursday, the medical examiner's office said.
The fire started about 5:15 a.m. and took about three hours to extinguish.
"There was fire throughout the building," Sheets said.
Crews struggled with a frozen hydrant and the frigid weather, which iced over much of the scene. The roof and some of the flooring was destroyed in the blaze, and the basement had to be drained of about 4 feet of water that accumulated during firefighting efforts. A crane was used to sift through the debris.
Officials said they were still trying to determine a cause of the blaze. The firefighter who witnessed the apparent suicide is a deputy chief in the department and was sent home to recover from the trauma.
"Our prayers go out to the family members," said Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury, who visited the scene.
A neighbor said the couple had lived at the home for more than a dozen years, and their adult son had moved back home a few months ago.
The father loved to fish and hunt, and the mother was an avid volunteer, she said. "They're a lovely couple," the neighbor said as she started to cry.
The woman had worked as a secretary at St. Linus Roman Catholic Church in Oak Lawn and continued to help out after retirement, as often as four times a week.
"She was one of our star volunteers," church secretary Joan Hickey said, adding that the woman was also active in the church embroidery guild. "They're a very faith-based couple."
Hickey said the couple have an adult son and daughter.
"We're all devastated," she said.
Tribune reporter Peter Nickeas contributed.