A mother and her toddler were killed after a fire broke out in a converted South Los Angeles garage Wednesday, the latest in an increase in fire fatalities that officials say are occurring at an alarming rate.
Heavy smoke and flames were billowing out of the garage in the 170 block of East 50th Street when firefighters arrived shortly before 11:45 a.m. and found the 2-year-old near the building's entrance, Los Angeles fire officials said. The child, who wasn't breathing and didn't have a pulse, was rushed to a hospital, but pronounced dead on arrival.
The toddler's mother was found later inside a bedroom, LAFD Capt. Jaime Moore said. The names of the victims had not been released.
Their deaths mark the 10th and 11th civilian fire fatalities in 2014, more than half the city's yearly average of 20. One of this year's deaths — a 98-year-old woman who was killed when her furnace caught fire — occurred three blocks from Wednesday's blaze.
"It's alarming to be entering the month of March — and we are in the fifth day of March — and we're already at the alarming rate of 11 fatalities," Moore said.
Investigators have not yet determined what sparked the fire, or whether the garage had working smoke detectors. They are also examining whether the blaze was related to a report of smoke in the area about 90 minutes before the blaze. Three engines and two trucks responded to the first call, Moore said, but firefighters thought the smoke came from a tar pot and did not find any fire.
"We're looking to see if there was any relationship between the two calls," Moore said.
Neighbors said the family — a man, woman and two children — had lived in the garage for a few years. The father and the other child, an 8-year-old who was at school, were not home at the time of the blaze.
The father arrived at the garage Wednesday afternoon, consoled by friends and relatives as his sobs could be heard across the street. "It was my son," he said in Spanish. "My baby."
As the number of deaths has risen this year, fire officials have focused on developing a public awareness campaign about the importance of working smoke alarms. Many of the fatal fires occurred in homes without the devices, they said.
Firefighters plan to reach out to homeowner associations and neighborhood councils, Moore said, and visit Los Angeles elementary schools to teach children safety tips that they can take home to their parents. The Los Angeles City Council approved a motion earlier this year to ensure that all residences have smoke alarms that function properly.
"The Fire Department can only do so much," said Herb Wesson, one of the council members who introduced the measure. "The rest of it falls on us."
After Wednesday's blaze, firefighters canvassed the neighborhood, asking residents if they needed their smoke detectors checked and offering free detectors to those who didn't have any.
"I don't know if mine work anymore so I came to get two," said Martha Gamez, 33. "You have to be prepared."
Moore said he visited 10 homes in the area after Wednesday's fire. Six, he said, did not have smoke alarms.