Authorities are trying to determine why a family of seven was living in a Compton commercial building permitted for industrial use when a fire erupted, killing two.
Officials said the family had converted the top floor of the building at 4319 E. Compton Blvd. into a loft, where the parents, their four children and a grandson lived.
“We had no knowledge that people were living on the premises,” said Bob Spencer, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. “That would be illegal.”
The fire broke out about 2 a.m. Monday. The coroner is awaiting test results before naming the two victims, but family members identified the dead as Teresa Lopez, 42, and her 12-year-old daughter, Margarita.
Two years ago, inspectors with Building and Safety issued several code violations to the property owner for “visible junk, trash, disabled cars, miscellaneous, personal items, household appliance” littering the property.
The department was working with him to bring the building up to code.
In May, the property owner asked for a week to clean up the debris. When he didn't comply, the department sent a formal letter a month later warning him to abate the violations, Spencer said.
“This type of material is an eyesore and health risk when you have all this junk on the property, and a safety risk,” he said.
The fire had fully engulfed the roof by the time firefighters arrived at the building where rescue efforts were dangerous, with debris stacked more than 6 feet high, Miller said.
A search and rescue team pushed through “pack-rat like” conditions inside, carrying out piles of debris and using a plow truck to dig out a mound of rubbish taller than the firefighters.
After numerous trips into the building with a cadaver dog, authorities confirmed that two bodies had been discovered. The father and three children were able to escape the burning building before firefighters arrived, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Scott Miller said.
Automotive parts and debris clogged the living quarters and caused the blaze to burn longer and hotter, and the loft to collapse, Miller said.
Michelle Lockhart, who lives across the street, said the flames were so hot, she could feel the heat radiating off the building.
Family members arrived at the scene after seeing the fire on the news.
Teresa Lopez’ sister was to too upset to talk as she surveyed the damage and watched firefighters search for the bodies of her loved ones. Her husband, Joe Marsano, said the family was in shock.
“I've seen this before in the news,” he said. “I never thought this was going to happen to us. It's unbelievable.”
The bodies were found in the back of the mechanic shop, Los Angeles County Assistant Coroner Ed Winter said.
Lockhart said she saw a girl screaming and crying outside the burning building and trying to get inside to save her family.
“She was hysterical,” Lockhart said. “It hurt me so bad to see her out there.”
As she stood on a corner diagonal from the building, there was a second explosion. Lockhart and several other neighbors ducked for cover, she said.
“It was burning so hot," she said, "there is no way anybody could have gotten out of there.”