CHICAGO --Police are investigating a "suspicious" apartment fire that killed three children and a man on Chicago's Southeast Side early Tuesday morning. Investigators told ABC7 Eyewitness News the fire was set and they are questioning a person of interest.
Chicago Fire Department Deputy Commissioner Arriel Gray Jr. said an infant girl, a 4-year-old girl, a 6-year-old girl and a man were killed in the extra-alarm fire that broke out in the 8100 block of S. Essex Avenue just before 1:35 a.m.
The infant was identified by the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office as 3-month-old Melanie Watson.
Firefighters arrived on the scene to find heavy flames on the second and third floors of the three-story courtyard apartment building, Gray said. The fire was upgraded to three alarms just before 1:55 a.m. Gray said about 200 CFD personnel responded to the scene.
The stairwells were burned out, making it difficult to get to residents. Gray said that's when firefighters went into defensive mode. Neighbors said they had to jump out of the building to get out alive, and that they saw a man with an infant jump from the third floor.
"It was so scary because you're running around and there's nothing you can get. It's just the nick of the time. You've got to hurry up and get out. You don't know what's happening. The fire was upstairs and downstairs when I came in the hallway. I didn't actually know where it was coming from," said Lanita Smith, who lives in the building.
Melanie's relatives said her father, 36-year-old Michael Watson, grabbed her and jumped out of a third-floor window. He was transported to Advocate Christ Medical Center, where he is being treated for critical burns.
His daughter did not survive. Melanie was rushed to Comer Children's Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 2:40 a.m., the medical examiner's office said.
The flames were extinguished just before 4:40 a.m. When firefighters conducted their final search, Gray said they found a man and two young girls dead on the third floor.
Family members identified the girls as Melanie's sisters, 4-year-old Madison Watson and 7-year-old Shaniyah Staples.
"They was with their daddy. Their daddy is in the hospital burned severely," said Charmaine Staples, a family member.
The children were found in the same apartment, but were not together, Gray said. The man was found in an adjacent apartment. Authorities have not released his identity.
A 45-year-old man was taken to South Shore Hospital, where he is listed in good condition. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries during the response - a shoulder injury and an injury to the left hand.
LaToya Terry said she believes she knows exactly who started the fire: a man that lives on the block and is a known user of drugs and alcohol. She said he came to her place around 1 a.m. Tuesday, asking for $10. When she didn't give him any money, Terry said he retaliated by starting the fire.
"He said I owed him $10. I slammed my door in his face and told him I don't owe him anything. He began to kick and punch at my door," Terry said.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation. The Chicago Police Bomb and Arson Unit are talking to the woman and looking into her story.
Dozens of people were displaced by the fire. The American Red Cross helped them find a place to stay.
The building, owned by a company in Florida, failed its most recent inspection. Building officials said the apartment complex was last inspected on Nov. 5, 2015.
The ABC7 I-Team learned building code citations were issued because inspectors couldn't access most of the apartments to verify there were smoke detectors inside.
Inspectors also noted that a porch was found to be defective or missing parts and one stairway needed repairs.