Jimmie Hampton was at work at Midway Airport when he got a call that the West Woodlawn building he owned was on fire, trapping his sister, his two nieces and their young children inside the basement.
As he sped toward them on the expressway, he could see the lights from the firetrucks and police vehicles.
"At the moment, I was just hoping that everybody was all right," Hampton said Sunday morning. "My mind was gone."
The "fast-spreading" fire Saturday night left an infant girl and a toddler girl dead, a 6-year-old boy critically hurt, and three other people injured including a Chicago firefighter. The Cook County medical examiner's officer identified the girls as Ziya Grace, 7 months, and Jamaii Grace, 2.
The 6-year-old was taken to Comer Children's Hospital in critical condition. Two women, ages, 48 and 25, were taken to University of Chicago Medical Center, according to police and fire officials.
Hampton identified the hospitalized women as his sister and niece, Ernestine Franklin and Zakiya Franklin, both of whom were being treated for smoke inhalation. He said Zakiya Franklin is the mother of Ziya and Jamaii.
Hampton said his other niece, who was not hospitalized, is the mother of the little boy who suffered burns on 70 percent of his body and likely will need several operations.South Champlain fire Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune
Jimmie Hampton, 59, great-uncle to the two girls killed at the fatal fire along the 6600 block of South Champlain Avenue, arrives at the home in Chicago Feb. 26, 2017. Hampton owns the home and five of his family members were there when the fire broke out. Ziya Grace, 7 months-old, and her sister Jamaii Grace, 2 , died in the basement. The other three people were transported to local hospitals.
Jimmie Hampton, 59, great-uncle to the two girls killed at the fatal fire along the 6600 block of South Champlain Avenue, arrives at the home in Chicago Feb. 26, 2017. Hampton owns the home and five of his family members were there when the fire broke out. Ziya Grace, 7 months-old, and her sister Jamaii Grace, 2 , died in the basement. The other three people were transported to local hospitals.(Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)
The blaze began in the basement of a greystone in the 6600 block of South Champlain Avenue, where a stove had been turned on for heat, a law enforcement source said. No foul play is suspected.
Hampton, who lives on the first floor of the building, said someone was boiling water on the stove for the vapor.
"When the pot burned out, they were asleep, and the pot got so hot it popped," Hampton said. "It flew somewhere and caught whatever on fire."
Fire crews responded to the house about 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Deputy District Chief Mike Carbone said at the scene.
"Companies made an aggressive attack, trying to knock that fire down and make a simultaneous search for any victims that were in there," Carbone said.
The flames had quickly spread to the floor above, and firefighters went in "under very heavy fire conditions," said Carbone, who described the blaze as "fast-spreading."
Neighbors heard screaming and came out to see the building enveloped in an enormous blaze.
"I heard somebody hollering real loud," said Taneisha Grayson, 27, who lives across the street. "As I was coming to the corner, I heard everyone say there was babies in there."
A few neighbors tried to get inside, but the flames were too intense, Grayson said.
Grayson saw the boy's mother collapse to the ground, distraught, she said.
"She saw in the ambulance, and her baby was all burned up," Grayson said, waving her hand up and down her torso to show where the boy had been hurt.
Neighbors found some clothes and a blanket for the mother, who had rushed outside unprepared for the cold weather. She wasn't allowed in the ambulance with her son, so Grayson said she gave her a ride to Comer, then came back to the corner of 67th and Champlain.
An hour after the fire, watching crews search the house through broken windows, there were tears on Grayson's face.
"As I approached and they said there was babies in there, I just lost it," she recalled.
Firefighters later found Ziya and Jamaii Grace in the basement. They were pronounced dead on the scene.
One firefighter was injured in the course of the response. He was taken to an area hospital in fair to serious condition. Information about the nature of his injuries was not immediately available.
No smoke detectors were found in the basement, officials said.
Hampton returned to the home Sunday morning, packing his white car to the brim with clothes, personal items and important documents, and taking photos of the damage for the insurance company. The windows were boarded up and shards of glass covered the front steps.
Hampton said he was already planning on selling the building and this was "the straw that broke the camel's back."
"I'm just so devastated," he said.
Chicago Fire Department officials also returned to Champlain Avenue on Sunday, handing out smoke detectors to area residents.
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