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Arson suspected in deadly fire

The scene fire 4235 West 21st Place Chicago Ill. Saturday December 29 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

The scene of a fire at 4235 West 21st Place in Chicago, Ill., on Saturday, December 29, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:49AM

A deadly West Side fire Saturday that claimed the life of a 33-year-old woman and critically injured her children was likely intentionally set, with accelerant poured on the woman and children, police sources said.

“The reality is the likelihood is it’s going to be a homicide because we believe that it is an arson,” Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy said, citing preliminary information.

He said it appears the blaze was set as part of a domestic dispute.

“We believe we know who the offender is, we believe we know what happened,” McCarthy said at an unrelated news conference Saturday afternoon.

While the fire had not officially been ruled an arson by Sunday morning, a police source says an accelerant was used to start the blaze and that they have identified a suspect — a man found at the scene whom they have yet to publicly identify.

Killed in the fire was Taniya Johnson, of the 4500 block of West Harrison Street, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Authorities said she suffered burns to 80 percent of her body.

Johnson’s two children, identified by family as Nariya her 3-year-old daughter and Naciere her 9-year-old son, were critically injured, officials said.

The girl, identified by authorities as 4, suffered burns to 100 percent of her body and her brother, whom authorities say is 8, suffered burns to 35 percent of his, fire officials said. Both were in critical condition Saturday evening at Stroger Hospital, a spokeswoman said.

“We’re still in disbelief,” Johnson’s cousin, Donte Johnson said. “It’s just a tragedy.”

A mother and daughter who were living in the building’s second floor unit were taken to St. Anthony Hospital. On Sunday morning, the daughter, Joyce Rogers, 59, said both she and her 84-year-old mother, Sally Jordan, were physically fine though their home was destroyed. Rogers said she didn’t have information about what happened in the unit below their apartment. She and her mother smelled smoke and that’s when they evacuated the building, she said.

“We were treated and released,” she said. “We’re OK.”

Taniya Johnson’s family said she and the kids were visiting the children’s relatives, including their father, in the 4200 block of West 21st Place.

That’s where firefighters were summoned to about 4:40 a.m Saturday.

There were no visible flames coming out of the two-story walk-up, but when when fire crews arrived they found an injured man, identified by police as age 29 and by fire officials as 33, in front of the residence. Inside the first-floor apartment, firefighters found a badly injured Taniya Johnson as well as her children — discovered near a Christmas tree in the front room. Two women, ages 84 and 60, were able to get out of the home with the help of neighbors, said Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.

Taniya Johnson was pronounced dead at Stroger Hospital, authorities said. The man, who suffered burns to 90 percent of his body, was at Stroger in critical condition. The flames that enveloped the first floor bedroom and part of a hallway were put out in a matter of minutes, Fire District Chief Peter Van Dorpe said. The home was left uninhabitable and at least eight people were displaced.

“I can’t believe what I saw,” said Dominic Miranda, 28, who said he works for a company that boards up buildings after fires and just happened to be in the area.

One of the victims was a young girl, badly burned with “singed hair and skin peeling” and who seemed to be barely breathing, he said.

Later in the day, Johnson’s grieving family said she had worked for Hostess Brands.

They said she liked to bake and was known for her potato pie. And she was devoted to her family and especially her two children.

“She’s a good woman,” her cousin said.

Contributing: Kara Spak, Frank Main, Sun-Times Media

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