FOX 32/SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - Chicago Police are interviewing a person of interest in connection with an arson fire at a South Chicago apartment building that killed four people, including three children, and left three others injured early Tuesday morning.
The blaze was first reported at 1:36 a.m. in the three-story, courtyard apartment building in the 8100 block of South Essex, according to the Chicago Fire Department. It was upgraded to a three-alarm fire by 1:53 a.m.
Fire officials reported heavy fire on the second and third floors, and the building’s stairwells were deemed impassable.
A 3-month-old girl who lived in the building, Maline Watson, was taken to Comer Children’s Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 2:40 a.m., according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Two girls — one 4 years old, one 6 years old — and an adult man were later found dead inside the building after the fire was extinguished, a fire official said at the scene. Their names were not released by the medical examiner’s office Tuesday morning.
The children were found in one apartment, but were not together, said Arriel Gray, a deputy fire commissioner. The adult male who died was in a different apartment, Gray told reporters at the scene. All were on the third floor.
A 45-year-old man was taken in serious-to-critical condition to Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, authorities said. Witnesses at the scene told reporters that the man jumped from a third-floor window with a child in his arms.
A 36-year-old was taken to South Shore Hospital in fair-to-serious condition, fire officials said.
Chantel Staples, who was at the building Tuesday morning, said her brother is the father of the oldest child who died. He’s also the man who jumped with the baby in his arms.
“I got a call … to get to the apartment quick ‘cuz there was a fire.”
The 6-year-old, she said, “had the prettiest big round eyeballs ever. … She was a funny girl, you know, liked to dance and play with her cousins.”
The 4-year-old, Staples said, “I called the gray-eyed goddess cuz she had gray eyes.”
Deputy commissioner Gray described the fire as “suspicious in nature.”
The fire was struck out by 4:39 a.m., fire officials said.
On Tuesday night, a grief filled vigil was held with the mother and fathers of the three young girls who were killed, as well as plenty of supporters.
"I just loved them so much and they loved me,” said Tyra, the girls’ mother.
The mother of the three young girls was surrounded by family, friends and neighbors who joined hearts with her on this incredible day of grief and sadness.
The aunt of one of the girls' fathers offered a prayer for comfort as people gathered around the candles and balloons of the memorial.
Earlier in the day, as the building was being boarded up, people who were inside the burning apartments had returned to the scene where they almost lost their lives.
One man, who did not want to give his name, broke his ankle and wrist jumping out of the first floor apartment where he lived with his girlfriend.
He described being trapped by the flames.
“Between the first and second floor, both of them were on fire, I was stuck in between both of them at first and I made my way back to the apartment,” the man said. “And that's when I ran back to the fire to get out the window…to jump out the window.”
FOX 32: How fortunate do you feel to have gotten out of there alive?
“I feel very fortunate that me and my daughter was able to get out of there safely, but I feel bad for the other families,” said survivor Jaxx Scott.
Scott was visiting her boyfriend Monday night. She and her daughter had to be rescued by firefighters who put a ladder up to the second floor apartment where they were trapped.
“So we couldn't get out the front door, we couldn't get out the back door, so we ran into that room right on the side and I started seeing people jumping out of the window,” Scott said. “I seen the baby and the dad, It was just, it was horrible.”
As sadness grips the block, survivors are reminded of how fortunate they were to escape.
“Just glad to be alive,” one man said. “You know praying, for those families that lost (loved ones).”
The building, managed at the time by Villa Capital Properties, failed an annual inspection in November 2015 from the city’s Department of Buildings, according to city records. Inspectors issued building code citations in part because they couldn’t access “most dwelling units” to verify smoke detectors and conditions. Also mice droppings were found in one apartment, a porch was found to be defective or missing parts and a stairway needed repairs.
A spokesman for Villa Capital Properties said the building was sold in April. Property records on file with the Cook County Recorder indicate the building was sold to EquityBuild in April and that the company took out a $3.3 million mortgage on the property in April.