The father who survived a blaze that killed his wife and 12-year-old daughter near Compton told investigators that he was not in the building when the fire erupted.
The man said he was across the street fixing a car when the blaze broke out early Monday morning, said Los Angeles County Fire Department inspector Scott Miller. He told investigators he heard popping sounds coming from near the home and believed his wife was doing laundry in the back of the building, Miller said.
Authorities said the fire was reported at 2 a.m. at an auto mechanic's shop at 4319 E. Compton Blvd. By the time firefighters arrived, the building was engulfed and flames. Three of the husband's children were able to escape. The mother and a 12-year-old child were missing for hours after the fire was extinguished.
Two female bodies were found in the rubble. The coroner has not released the names of the victims, but relatives identified the 42-year-old mother as Teresa Lopez and her 12-year-old daughter as Margarita.
Authorities said the family had illegally converted the top building of a commercial building into a loft, where a couple, their four children and grandson lived. The area had been zoned for industrial, not residential, use.
"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."
Two years ago, Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety inspectors issued several code violations to the property owner for junk, trash, disabled cars, miscellaneous personal items and household appliances 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.
Authorities said the building that burned had pack-rat-like conditions making it extremely difficult to fight the fire.
Firefighters carried out piles of debris and used a plow truck to dig out of a mound of rubbish.
Automotive parts and debris clogged the living quarters and caused the blaze to burn longer and hotter, and the loft to collapse, Miller said.