‘It was as if the devil himself lived there.’
Near Sunset Boulevard and Figueroa Street, just north of downtown Los Angeles, there is a flurry of construction work taking place these days. More than 400 apartments are being built to meet the growing demand for housing in the area.
But in the midst of the hammering and sawing, a piece of vacant land at 821 W. Sunset Blvd. remains untouched--dwarfed by the activity around it. Upon it once sat a 43-unit apartment building, which became the scene of one of the deadliest residential fires in city history.
The Dorothy Mae Apartment Hotel was swept by flames early in the morning of Sept. 4, 1982. Nineteen people, including an unborn baby and its mother, perished as the fire roared through the 50-year-old, three-story structure. Thirty-six other people were injured, and, within 10 days, six of them had died.
Only the 1973 Stratford Apartments fire, in which 25 people were killed and 52 were injured, was as deadly, Los Angeles fire officials said.
The Dorothy Mae fire devastated what was literally an extended family. The building was informally known as “Little Salitre” because virtually all its nearly 200 residents came from the rural town of El Salitre in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. Many fire victims were related to one another.
Authorities said the inferno was a case of arson--the result of an argument between the manager and a nephew, who lived in the building, over the latter’s membership in a street gang, his smoking of marijuana and spray painting of graffiti.
Upset, the nephew, Humberto de la Torre, then 19, brought a dollar’s worth of gasoline, threw it on the floor of an apartment and then ignited it with a match, investigators said. The flames spread quickly, engulfing the building. The uncle, Mateo
de la Torre, was unhurt in the blaze.
Humberto de la Torre was arrested the following December in Texas, pleaded guilty to 25 counts of murder and in 1985 was sentenced to 625 years in prison. He is now serving his sentence at Folsom Prison.
The fire rendered even the land itself practically useless for a while, its owners, a group of businessmen holding it for investment, said.
“It was as if the devil himself lived there,” said attorney Hiran Kwan, a member of HLL Management Co. that owned the Dorothy Mae, expecting the land’s proximity to the city’s growing Chinatown would make it an increasingly valuable site.
Kwan said his group found little interest in its plans to build a new apartment house or hotel on the lot. He blamed adverse publicity stemming from the fire and false rumors that owners were going to be prosecuted because fire officials had found unsafe conditions that might have contributed to the toll. (Fire Department records showed the building had generally been kept up to city fire code standards and had been cited in the past for only minor violations.)
Kwan’s group, which is a major player in the current round of construction near Sunset and Figueroa, sold the Dorothy Mae land in 1984 for $500,000 to another group of businessmen, headed by Chinatown banker Kenneth Wong.
Wong said his group, U.P. Investment Inc., wants to use the Dorothy Mae site as part of a major hotel and a shopping center development along Sunset. The group is trying to put together financing for the $19-million project, said Wong, board chairman of United Pacific Bank.