By CBS 2 Chicago Staff

CHICGAO (CBS)– Just days before Christmas, tenants of an East Chatham apartment building can’t go back home, after an early morning fire broke out there, and police said they suspect the fire was the result of arson.

CBS 2’s Mugo Odigwe reports the smell of smoke lingered for hours after the fire was put out at a three-story apartment building on the 8200 block of South Drexel Avenue.

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The extra-alarm blaze left walls blackened, windows broken, and dozens of people temporarily homeless just days before Christmas.

The fire started just after 2 a.m. in a three-story courtyard building at 8250 S. Drexel Av.

“We wake up, in the middle of the night, around 2:15. I smelled smoke,” said tenant Calvin Robinson.

Robinson didn’t think the worst right away, but seconds later, “I hear my neighbor screaming my name: ‘It’s a fire.’”

When firefighters first arrived on the scene, “they had a little smoke showing,” according to Chicago Fire Department Assistant Deputy Fire Commissioner John Gies.

“They thought it was a standard apartment fire, but it got into the roof,” Gies said.

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Police and fire officials said the fire started in a vacant unit on the third floor.

The building was evacuated, sending at least 20 people out into the cold. Some took shelter in a CTA bus that was brought to the scene to keep them warm.

A 53-year-old man was taken to Jackson Park Hospital to be treated for minor smoke inhalation injuries.

Still it’s the loss of valuables, and the loss of a place to call home that has tenants like Johnson feeling broken.

“My ceiling is collapsed. There’s water leaking everywhere, out of the light fixtures and stuff. It’s unlivable,” he said. “I need some help. It’s a bad time of year. I don’t have a phone. I think it’s going to be alright, but I just need some help. I just need some help.”

Firefighters didn’t say if there were working smoke detectors in the building, but emergency responders said, with the holidays being so close, and people expected to gather, everyone should check the smoke detectors in their homes to make sure they’re working.

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The American Red Cross said they’re helping all 20 people affected by the fire, with everything from a place to stay to mental health services.

CBS 2 Chicago Staff