SOUTH CHICAGO — An overnight fire Tuesday in a South Chicago apartment building killed three children, including a baby, and investigators said the blaze was suspicious and was being investigated.
Chicago Police arson investigators are on the scene at the deadly fire in the 8100 block of South Essex Avenue. When firefighters arrived after 1 a.m., the fire had already consumed the interior and exterior stairwells, blocking firefighters from entering, officials said. A man was also killed in the blaze, and two others were hospitalized with fire-related injuries.
A person of interest was being questioned in connection to the deadly blaze, according to Officer Bari Lemmon, a Chicago Police spokeswoman.
A woman told Fox32 News that a man came to her apartment demanding $10. When she wouldn't give it to him, he set some boxes outside her apartment on fire. There was no immediate police confirmation on that claim.
At the scene of the fire on Tuesday morning, Chantel Staples, who said she was an aunt of the children killed in the fire, identified the children as Shaniyah Staples, 7; Madison Watson, 4; and Melanie Watson, 3 months.
"I love you Shaniyah, I love you Madison, I love you Melanie! I love you and I'm sorry this happened to you!" Staples said, weeping. "Whoever did this, you will reap what you sow."
Two of the children were found dead in the same third-floor apartment. A man, whose age was not immediately known, was found in a separate third-floor apartment, said Chicago Fire Dept. Deputy Fire Commissioner Arriel Gray.
"We lost our three little princesses," Staples said. "They were so full of life. Shaniyah was just about to start second grade. We were just playing in the park with them last weekend. They were so happy."
The third child, a 3-month-old, was found outside. Officials said it was unclear if that child had been carried down from the fire, or was dropped by someone in the building attempting to rescue her.
Witnesses said a man jumped through a window with the baby in his arms in an effort to save her.
A fire in the 8100 block of South Essex killed four people, including three kids. [Chicago Fire Department]
Jennifer Wainwright, who lives on the first floor, said she woke up to the sound of fire and someone yelling for everyone to get out.
"I went to the front door, and there were flames. Back door, flames. We were trapped," she said. "So my fiance and 2-year-old jumped out the window, and I jumped after them. There was a man with a little baby outside saying 'someone please take her.' There was dirt on her face. I handed off my baby and took her ... I'm CPR-certified, so I tried to give her CPR. There was nothing I could do. Then a nurse came and took her away."
Authorities first got to the scene at 1:37 a.m., according to Officer Ana Pacheco, a Chicago Police Department spokeswoman. The fire was out about three hours later, the Chicago Fire Department fire said.
"I did hear smoke detectors going off, so I'm not sure if they were inside the apartments, but I can tell you I did hear smoke detectors in the other apartments," Gray told reporters.
The baby was taken to Comer Children's Hospital and pronounced dead, Pacheco said.
A 36-year-old man was taken to Christ Hospital in critical condition and a 45-year-old man was taken to South Shore Hospital in fair condition, Gray said.
The cause of the fire was unknown, but an arson investigation is underway, Pacheco said.
Witnesses said people had to leap from second- and third-floor apartments to escape the blaze.
"I woke up at like 1 when a lady started screaming outside 'Get out of the building, there's a fire!' I didn't see anything at first, but then I looked out the window and saw the whole roof was igniting across the way," said Valerie West, who lives on the second floor of the U-shaped apartment complex, across the courtyard from where the fire was apparently set. "People were trying to get out, hollering and jumping out of windows."
West's husband, Byron West, said he helped the 45-year-old man to safety after he jumped out of a second-floor window, breaking multiple bones.
"It was just pandemonium," Byron West said. "I couldn't understand why people were jumping out the windows, instead of just going out the back. The someone said 'They set the back porch on fire, too!'"
A 911 caller reported that the fire was started intentionally, according to chatter on the Chicago Police scanner.
"I don't know why someone would do that deliberately," Valerie West said.
Workers from the American Red Cross was handing out food and medicine at a nearby community center to people displaced by the fire, according to spokeswoman Patricia Kemp.
At least 39 units had been damaged in the fire, but workers couldn't tell how many people had been displaced.
Wainwright was lucky, she said. She'd be able to stay with relatives who live nearby. But in the meantime, she was left to wonder how many of her belongings had been destroyed.
"I'm just trying to get my head wrapped around it," Wainwright said. "Everything is gone."
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