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Blaze Blocks Only Door : Family Cheats Death in a Spectacular Fire

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The cards seemed stacked for the death of the Chang family in Santa Ana Monday.

That they survived, unharmed, a spectacular fire just after midnight is amazing, said Battalion Chief Joe Lamphear. “I was just flabbergasted.”

The fire, which investigators believe was intentionally set in the garage below the Changs’ Normandy Place apartment, eventually burned through the garage door and sent flames shooting 20 feet outside--just below the only door leading out of the apartment.

Still Sleeping

Yet as firefighters arrived, the turmoil had not aroused the man and his two children sleeping directly above.

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According to Lamphear, in a few minutes the heat from the fire, which had melted the glass and metal of the front-porch light above, would have broken the apartment windows and almost instantly filled the apartment with intense heat and smoke.

Then, he said, the Changs would probably have done what most do in that situation: awaken, stand, inhale and die.

But had the Changs awakened before the windows broke, Lamphear said, they still probably would have been killed. They would probably have tried to flee through their front door, the only door leading out of the apartment, and the result would have been an explosion of heat and smoke through the door, he said.

“They’d have walked right into the fire,” Lamphear said. “It would have been just like walking into a blast furnace. One or two whiffs of that smoke is enough to kill you.”

Luck Was With Them

But luck was with the Chang family, and firefighters arrived before the windows broke or the family awoke.

They trained water onto the fire to cool the smoke, Lamphear said. Two firefighters kicked in the front door and came upon the sleeping family: Young Ha Chang, 37, and his children, Jae, 11, and Seung-ji, 8. They carried the children and led their father outside.

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“It’s unbelievable that they were still asleep after all the noise and the banging and pounding,” Lamphear said. Firefighters always search for trapped residents, he said, but this time “we really didn’t expect to find anyone.”

One firefighter, Fred Davis, was hospitalized briefly for the effects of smoke inhalation. Jae said in an interview that he thought his sister had died until he found her outside with the apartment manager.

His mother, Jang Ok Chang, was working in a Chinese restaurant at the time of the fire but was back late Monday surveying the virtually undamaged apartment.

Firefighters had told her how narrowly her family had escaped death. “She says she’s thankful for that,” said Jae, acting as interpreter.

The boy said the family had moved from Seoul, South Korea, two years ago, living a year in Guam before moving to Santa Ana. They came to the United States because “my parents wanted me to study, to be able to go to college,” he said.

Lamphear estimated damage to the garage and a car inside to be $30,000. He said the fire was being listed as “suspicious, pending further investigation.”

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“It appears that it was intentionally set,” Lamphear said. “It burned too fast, and Times staff writer Steve Tripoli contributed to this story.

there was no natural source of ignition at the place the fire started.”

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