Community comes together to help family who lost babies in fire

(CHICAGO) Seeing the media horde, the Rev. Leonard T. Smith walked the two blocks from Vernon Baptist Church to 66th and Champlain, where Chicago Fire Department officials were emphasizing the importance of smoke detectors at a building where two babies died.

A stove had been used for heat, and there were no working smoke detectors in the one-bedroom basement apartment where a fire on Feb. 25 took the lives of 7-month-old Ziya Grace and 2-year-old Samari Grace, the fire department said.

Smith hung back during the news conference, and afterward he told the Chicago Sun-Times that Vernon Baptist was trying to connect with the family to help.

“Obviously, when it’s children, and it’s this close to home, it hurts,” he said.

Now, the Woodlawn community is rallying around them.

A fundraiser is planned for 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 18, at Vernon Baptist Church, 6400 S. Champlain, organized by several churches, area businesses and community groups, and the Chicago Police Department’s 3rd District Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy office.

“The family is homeless. Several members are still in the hospital. The babies’ bodies remain in the morgue,” Smith said.

“This family has lived in the community over 30 years and have been staples here, so everyone in the area is concerned and wanting to help. We brought it to our CAPS meeting, and everyone was in full support,” he said. “We’re inviting the city to drop by the fundraiser on Saturday with a donation. We’ll have a choir, entertainment, a program. Lots of people are calling our pastor to contribute.”

Additionally, a GoFundMe campaign has been established for the family.

Six people lived in the basement apartment. Still hospitalized are Zakkiya Franklin, the 25-year-old mother of Ziya and Samari; the girls’ grandmother, Ernestine Franklin, 49; and their 6-year-old cousin, Donald Johnson Jr. Burned over 75 percent of his body, Donald Jr. has already had five surgeries. The boy’s mother, Janice Franklin, was earlier discharged from the hospital, but spends 24 hours a day at the hospital with Donald.

Zakkiya Franklin, who was burned on her head, face and hands, is now alert and communicating by writing, and only learned last week that firefighters were unable to rescue her two girls despite heroic efforts, several family members said.

“She told us she kind of already knew in her heart, because in all this time, none of us had ever mentioned the kids. She said, ‘Well, they are up in heaven,’” said Rachel Franklin, one of her great aunts.

“Ernestine’s doing better, and has been moved from the burn unit. We’re waiting on Zakkiya to come out of the hospital before we can plan funerals. And when they come out, they have family, but nowhere to call home,” she added.

The building was owned by Ernestine Franklin’s brother. The fire remains under investigation. The Building Department has said it previously received a complaint of no heat from residents at the building, through a 311 call on Jan. 5. The department said inspectors visited the address on Jan. 6 but were unable to gain entry, leaving a notice for the owner to contact the department.

The owner has declined to comment, designating his niece, Shaquena Luckett, to speak for him.

“My uncle is taking this very hard. I want people to know that,” Luckett said. “The babies lost were his great-nieces. That’s his great-nephew in the hospital, along with his sister, and his niece. He’s grieving. We’re all grieving.

“That was a family building, full of love,” she said. At some point over the years, everyone in this family has lived there. If you had nowhere to go, you knew you could always come there. It’s not at all what people may think. We’re just very grateful for the outpouring.”