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Flames, screams, prayers — ‘suspicious’ fire kills 3 kids, 1 man

Shaniyah Staples, left, Madison Watson and Melanie Watson were victims in a suspected arson fire Tuesday. | Courtesy ABC7 Chicago

Jennifer Wainwright had just saved her 2-year-old daughter’s life — dropping the little girl out of her front window and into the waiting arms of her fiancé.

Just minutes later, after Wainwright had leaped to safety, as flames licked the night sky and roared through her South Side apartment building, someone handed her another child — a baby, dirt-smeared and gasping for breath.

“Can someone please take the baby?” a man she didn’t know said to her.

Wainwright gently laid the infant on the sidewalk and placed her lips to the baby’s. But she was too late.

“It was devastating because all I could think about was, what if it had been my daughter?” Wainwright, 29, said later. “No mom should lose their newborn. No mom should lose their kids — period.”

Little Melanie Watson was one of four people — including three children, Melanie and her two sisters — who died in the early-morning fire.

Police said they were interviewing a person of interest in connection with the blaze in South Chicago.

Three others also were injured in the fire, which 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.

GalleryFire 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, Melanie 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. An autopsy showed she died from injuries from a fall from height, and carbon monoxide toxicity. Her death was ruled a homicide.

The other two girls — Madison Watson, 4, and Shaniya Staples, 7; and 56-year-old Kirk Johnson, were later found dead inside the building after the fire was extinguished, a fire official said at the scene.

Johnson was pronounced dead at 6:45 a.m. An autopsy showed he died of thermal injuries and carbon monoxide toxicity from the fire, and his death was ruled a homicide, according to the medical examiner’s office.

The girls’ names had not been released by the medical examiner’s office as of late Tuesday afternoon.

Family members and friends mourn in the 8100 block of South Essex, after a fire in an apartment building killed four people, including three children, early Tuesday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Family members and friends mourn in the 8100 block of South Essex, after a fire in an apartment building killed four people, including three children, early Tuesday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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 his child in his arms.

Another injured man, 36, 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 was at the scene, being comforted by friends and relatives.

“I got a call … to get to the apartment quick ‘cuz there was a fire,” Chantel Staples said.

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.”

Wainwright had been watching television when she heard a “crackling” sound. She opened her apartment door and saw flames and thick smoke filling the stairwell.

She ran to a rear door, but the fire was worse there, she said. With the fire seemingly closing in on all sides — she thought, briefly, that crawling out her front door appeared the best option.

“I screamed, ‘We’re trapped!” Wainwright said. Then in a flash, her fiancé heaved open their front first-floor window and leaped out, landing on the ground about 15 feet below. Wainwright dropped her toddler into her fiancé’s waiting arms and then jumped out herself, into the dark.

Jaxx Scott, 40, recalled her harrowing escape, along with her daughter, Shatiara, 21, from a second story apartment.

“I started seeing people jump out of the windows,” said Jaxx Scott, who realized the kitchen was on fire after her dog, Butter Cup, a Yorkie, started barking.

Jaxx Scott went to the window facing the courtyard of the apartment building as smoke and fire filled the room.

She looked up and noticed the ceiling was sagging and about to cave in.

“I started praying,” she said.

Left to right: Shatiara Scott, William Lemon (Jaxx Scott’s<br>boyfriend) and Jaxx Scott. Photo by Mitch Dudek.
Left to right: Shatiara Scott, William Lemon (Jaxx Scott’s
boyfriend) and Jaxx Scott. Photo by Mitch Dudek.

Firefighters arrived and leaned a ladder up their window. Shatiara Scott made her mom go down first. “She was panicking,” Shatiara Scott said.

Shatiara Scott then passed a firefighter her dog before she too descended the latter to safety. Both mother and daughter suffered minor smoke inhalation.

“It was horrible,” Jaxx Scott said. “I didn’t think we were going to make it.”

Hours after the fire a man on crutches returned to the scene and described how he escaped the fire from his second floor apartment.

“When I opened the front door the fire came rushing in on us,” said the man, who asked not to be named.

“I was with my girlfriend and she actually ran through the fire and I couldn’t make it through so I had to go back in and jump out the window. But she made it all the way down . . . not a scratch on her,” said the man, 40, who suffered a broken ankle, wrist and burns on his legs and arms.

“I put one leg out. Put the other one out. And just jumped,” said the man, who landed on concrete.

“I tried to jump and roll like I was taught in the military, but I didn’t make. It didn’t work,” he said.

An unidentified man returns to the fire scene. Photo by Mitch Dudek.
An unidentified man returns to the fire scene. Photo by Mitch Dudek.

Byron West, 50, who lives in an apartment on the opposite side of the courtyard building from where the fire occurred, said a commotion drew his attention to the window.

“I just woke up to a lady screaming ‘This m———– set my s— on fire,’ ” he said.

“She’s stomping. She’s hysterical, yelling ‘They need to get out. It’s on fire.'”

Byron West. Photo by Mitch Dudek.
Byron West. Photo by Mitch Dudek.

The fire was out by 4:39 a.m., fire officials said. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, Gray told reporters, adding that firefighters could hear smoke detectors sounding as they worked.

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.

John Landry, general counsel for EquityBuild, said Tuesday morning he was unaware of the fire and declined comment. Joel Feingold, who identified himself as a sales consultant for EquityBuild, said he also had not heard about the fire and expressed sympathy for tenants.

“My deepest sympathies to the families and the ones that died,” he said. “The company higher-ups, I’m sure they would say the same.”

Photo by Mitch Dudek

About 150 people gathered for a vigil Tuesday night outside the fire-damaged building.

Candles, balloons, decorated poster boards, stuffed animals, bubble gum and a bag of teriyaki beef jerky were placed on a fence steps away from the building.

Tearful family members huddled together, choosing not to talk about

the fire or those lost in it.

Contributing: Andy Grimm, Jordan Owen, Luke Wilusz