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Fire that killed baby, toddler started by accident, investigators say

CHICAGO - A fast-moving house fire that killed a baby girl and a toddler on the city's South Side is being declared an accident by investigators.

Firefighters believe the family was using a stove-top and oven to heat the basement apartment of a two-story building in the 6600 block of S. Champlain in West Woodlawn.

When a fire broke out around 10:30 p.m. Saturday, three adults and three children were inside. The three adults made it out, some suffered smoke inhalation. But the the three children were still trapped inside. 7-month-old Ziya Grace and her 2-year-old sister Samari Grace were killed. A 6-year-old boy was rescued by firefighters and is now at Comer Children's Hospital. He is alive but severely burned.
Dan Cunningham, district chief of the Chicago Fire Department, said that a gas line to the stove ruptured during the incident, which helped to fuel the fire.

Neighbors say after the fire broke out, they ran outside when they heard screaming. Some tried to run inside to rescue the children, but the fire was spreading too quickly.

"By the time I got to the corner, two of the guys had already ran in there. They said the flames were so thick there was nothing they could do," said Taneisha Grayson.

For neighbor Stephaine Hall Smith, the cries of desperation are haunting. She lives across the street from the three unit building where the fire broke out. The mother of one of the children trapped inside was calling for Stephanie’s husband, Rodney, to come help.

“I heard her hollering and screaming. Hollering and screaming. And she just stood right there. Rodney! Rodney! My baby, please save my baby!” Smith said.

“I went to the basement, the basement door and the black smoke was just rolling out. And I see the flames,” Rodney Smith said. He couldn't get inside.

Neighbors say the mother of two of those children went back inside to attempt to save them, but couldn't reach the back room where they were believed to be.

“I’m hurting for them,” Rodney Smith said.

Firefighters say two women, ages 48 and 25 made it out of the building on their own and were taken to the hospital.

According to neighbors, the elder woman was the grandmother of all three children, and the younger was the mother of the two young girls killed in the fire.

A 25-year-old woman also took herself to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. A firefighter was also hospitalized after the rescue effort. He is expected to be okay.

Investigators believe the stove and several space heaters were the only source of warmth in this basement unit.

In addition to the possibility of limited access to heat, the unit did not have working smoke detectors. Two-thirds of fire related deaths happen in units and buildings that do not have working smoke detectors.

The city's buildings department received a call about a complaint of no heat in the building early last month. They sent an inspector to the building who wasn't able to get inside. The inspector left an orange sticker on the door telling the owner to give him a call but they never received a call back.

According to neighbors, the family shared the building with other relatives, one of which who owns this building.

"A lot of credit has to go to these fire companies. They went in there under very heavy fire conditions," said Chicago Fire Dept. Deputy District Chief Mike Carbone.

It took firefighters about 20 minutes to put the fire out.