When firefighters arrived at the blazing condominium complex just blocks from the historic Mission San Juan Capistrano, they were stunned at the scene.
Scores of residents in the working-class neighborhood had been displaced, a mother had been forced to toss children from a window to neighbors below as the flames advanced, and a 3-year-old boy was among those rushed to the hospital — only to die hours later.
On Wednesday, the day after the fire, a somber mood hung over La Zanja Street, a densely packed neighborhood in a city best known for its mission, swallows, restaurants and small-town charm.
"My God ... my God, I don't know how this could start," stammered Martin Jimenez, who lived in the complex with his wife and two children.
The child who died, Jaiden Liborio, was his nephew and one of 17 people who lived in a single unit, he said. In all, firefighters said 80 residents were left homeless by the Tuesday morning blaze, and eight were seriously injured — most of them children.
Authorities said that all three smoke detectors in a four-bedroom condo where the child lived had been removed, and that detectors in neighboring units were not operable. Some had dead batteries, others no batteries at all.
Because of the lack of working smoke detectors in the complex, the thick smoke from the blaze probably awoke residents as it crawled along the hallways and stairwells, eventually triggering a panicked and hurried push to escape the flames, firefighters said.
In the chaos, many had to improvise their escape.
One mother had to toss her 2- and 3-year-old daughters from a bedroom window for residents below to catch. When a 5-year-old boy ran into her bedroom, she had to throw him below too, said Capt. Steve Concialdi, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority.
One woman leaped into a crib mattress that residents below pulled onto a sidewalk to break her fall. The woman, described as being in her mid-40s, was seriously injured by severe burns, but also by the fall, which broke her legs, Concialdi said.
During the rescue, firefighters found a small dog, named "Osito" — or little bear — hidden in the bottom drawer of a dresser. The drawer was left open just enough for the dog to slip inside. Once there, the dog managed to cover itself in clothing to try to shield itself from the flames.
The fire started about 9:15 a.m. and was sparked by a child playing with a lighter, Concialdi said. The flames moved quickly, consuming the mattresses that lined the floor of the four-bedroom unit where the 3-year-old lived.
Authorities said nine people were at home when the fire broke out, six of them children, authorities said.
The 3-year-old, his 20-year-old mother Maricela Sanchez and his younger brother Iker were among those rushed to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. Officials said Jaiden later died of smoke inhalation. The child's mother and brother remained in critical condition.
"She was an overprotective mother. She wanted her kids to be safe and in order to be safe, she had to stay with them all the time," said Lisa Carrillo, who attended San Juan Hills High School with Sanchez.
She said Sanchez shared a bedroom in the complex with Alfonso Liborio, a construction worker and Jaiden's father. Liborio's mother also lived with them.
City code inspectors said they have been called to the complex several times over the years, most often to check out reports that garages had been converted to living spaces.
In all, fire officials said eight units were damaged by flames and smoke. Two were destroyed.
An emergency shelter has been set up in San Juan Capistrano, and the Red Cross is trying to find housing and other assistance for displaced residents.
"It's a traumatic and emotional event to go through," said Meredith Mills, an Orange County Red Cross spokeswoman.
Fernando Portillo, a bartender at El Adobe — a Mexican restaurant that was a favorite of former President Nixon when he lived nearby in San Clemente — said he was planning a fundraiser for the Liborio family.
On Wednesday, he walked past the railroad tracks the run through the neighborhood, his kids whizzing by in mini-scooters. "I have six kids. Everyone around here cares about one another. This is so hard for us to handle because when tragedy hits and you are trapped, where can you go?"
Outside the blackened and blistered complex, Jimenez slumped his shoulders and pondered the weight of the tragedy.
"I am not sure what we can do next."