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UPDATED 01/24/12 4:58 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — Two tiny lives were lost overnight in the fury of flames at a Far South Side townhouse apartment early Tuesday.
As CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, the fire broke out around 3:15 a.m. in the housing complex at 130th Street and Daniel Drive, just east of Indiana Avenue, and just west of the Altgeld Gardens public housing development.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports
Destiny Miles, 3, and her brother, Jeremiah, 18 months, died in the blaze.
The children were at home in their first-floor apartment with their pregnant mother, identified by neighbors either as Alicia Gregory or Alicia Myles, and their 6-year-old brother when the fire broke out in the kitchen.
“The complex behind us had heavy fire on the first floor. En route, there were reports of people trapped on the top floor by police officers,” said Fire Department District Chief Bob McKee.
Fire Media Affairs Director Larry Langford said the 6-year-old boy was cooking on the stove in an apartment when things got out of hand, and the fire started.
Officials said it appeared a pizza box caught fire while the boy was trying to fix a late night snack.
“(The mother) heard the smoke detector. We don’t know if she was completely asleep or what, but she heard the smoke detector, and she started to take action, but things got away,” Langford said.
Alicia, who was pregnant at the time, and her 6-year-old son, Curnet Brewer, frantically ran out. But before she could fetch her other two children, the door to her apartment slammed shut and locked behind her.
Alicia’s cousin, Leotis Broughton, ran to the scene from his home nearby.
“I heard screaming outside, so I went outside – went into the back – and I saw it was my cousin’s house,” Broughton said, “so I go to the door and try to get in, then the flames start coming out more.”
A police officer came to the scene soon afterward and tried to break into the building and knock down the door with Broughton. But their efforts were to no avail.
A tow truck driver who happened to be passing by also tried to force entry.
The door eventually came down. But once the group got inside, they were faced with a wall of flames, and they couldn’t reach the two young children.
Next door neighbor Gwen Hoskins says also she smelled the smoke, and came outside to find Alicia saying her apartment was on fire and the two young children were inside. But she too found that the flames and smoke were too great to be able to go inside after the children.
When firefighters arrived at 3:15 a.m. Tuesday, they attacked the heavy fire, which was mainly contained to one apartment.
“Once the Fire Department got to the scene, they made an aggressive interior attack. All the fire was in that first-floor apartment, and the children were in that one bedroom in that complex, which you had to get past the fire to get to that room,” Chief McKee said.
The firefighters found Destiny on the floor and Jeremiah in his crib. Neither showed signs of life.
“It’s never easy when children are involved, you know, when children are involved, it’s a little bit worse,” Chief McKee said. “They never have a chance.”
McKee said it is difficult even for firefighters to battle blazes in the conditions seen in the apartment, let alone for civilians.
“When you wake up and your house is full of smoke and fire, you don’t think right. You know, it’s tough on us,” McKee said. “As a civilian, I couldn’t imagine waking up in those conditions and how you’d react. So like I say, at least she got one child out.”
The older boy, Curnet, was not injured. But he has been told what happened to his siblings.
“I want Destiny and Jeremiah to be remembered. They were just the happiest kids, and you couldn’t do anything but love them,” said the children’s aunt, Eucita Broughton, who added that they both had big smiles all the time.
Alicia was also injured and taken to Roseland Community Hospital, where she was reported in serious, but stable, condition, authorities said.
The police officer and the tow truck driver who tried to rescue the children were also hospitalized. They suffered smoke inhalation, and the officer also suffered a shoulder injury.
Upstairs neighbor Denise Dyson says she heard the younger children’s screams and that they were “heart-breaking”.
Dyson thinks there might have been a better chance of saving the two younger children if firefighters had had more direct access to the building.
The apartment building is right next to 130th Street, but there’s a chain link fence and no access from the street. To get to the building, Langford admits, firefighters had to drive nearly a mile out of their way to go around the apartment complex and up to the building where the fire was.
Residents said, had there been an entrance to the apartment complex right next to the building where the children died, it could have shaved minutes off the Fire Department’s response time.
“There is only one way in and one way out,” neighbor Sandra Watkins said.
It took a CBS 2 news crew nearly four minutes to drive to the back of the apartment complex, crossing 12 speed bumps along the way.
“If they could have came in right there, boom, they’re right here, Watson said. “It could have very well saved lives. And that’s what it’s about, human life.”
But fire officials have said they don’t know if the few extra minutes it took firefighters to reach the scene would have made a difference.
Even so, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said he will try to get entrances reopened around the apartment complex to allow for quicker access in emergencies.