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Officials: Deaths in South Chicago fire ruled homicides

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

The deaths of three girls and man after a South Chicago neighborhood apartment building fire have been ruled homicides by the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

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.

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 Shaniyah Staples, 7 — and 56-year-old Kirk Johnson were later found dead inside the building after the fire was extinguished. Autopsies have ruled they died of thermal injuries and carbon monoxide toxicity. Their deaths were ruled homicides.

Also on Thursday, police said they released a “person of interest” who had been questioned in connection with the fire. No charges were filed, police said.

The children were found in one apartment but were not together, said Arriel Gray, a deputy fire commissioner. Johnson was in a different apartment. 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 Melanie Watson in his arms. Another injured man, 36, was taken to South Shore Hospital in fair-to-serious condition, fire officials said.

Deputy commissioner Gray described the fire as “suspicious in nature.”

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.

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.'”

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.