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2 Sisters Die in Early Morning House Fire

Times Staff Writer

Neighbors broke windows and hacked at the door with pickaxes, but the fire that swept through several houses in East Los Angeles raged too ferociously for anyone to rescue two teen-age sisters who died in their bedroom early Saturday.

By the time firefighters extinguished the predawn blaze, Angelica and Laura Ornelas were dead. And 18 neighbors and relatives who lived in a jumble of houses on the same small lot were homeless.

Alfonso Cruz, who lived in a connected house that was heavily damaged, said he heard coughing and wheezing--muffled screams, perhaps, he was not sure--coming from the 7-foot-by-8-foot bedroom as he tried to save the sisters. But thick smoke and flames repulsed every attempt at rescue, including those of sheriff’s deputies who arrived a short while later.

Neighbors said fire officials removed a portable heater from the house; others said they heard investigators mention electrical wiring as a possible cause of the fire. The County Fire Department would only say that all possibilities, including arson, are being investigated. Authorities estimated the damage at about $133,000.

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The scene Saturday afternoon drew blank stares and tears from family and friends who gathered at the narrow lot in the 3300 block of Winter Avenue in the City Terrace section of East Los Angeles to mourn the death of the sisters.

“They were close in age and they did everything together,” said Elizabeth Rodriguez, a family friend. “It’s just a tragedy.”

It might have been worse, relatives said, if two other sisters who usually share the bedroom had not been visiting their family in Mexico.

At 4:49 a.m., sheriff’s deputies responded to a call on the 911 emergency line. When they arrived, flames were leaping over telephone wires and lapping at nearby structures.

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Sheriff’s Lt. Lee Taylor said that deputies misunderstood the Spanish-speaking relatives who had managed to escape unharmed and went into the wrong house in search of the two sisters. But by then it was too late.

After six engine companies put out the fire, the sisters were found, one on a bed, the other on the floor. Taylor said they apparently died of smoke inhalation. Angelica Ornelas, 19, was described as friendly and happy. She was studying computer training. Laura Ornelas, 17, was a student a Garfield High School and was said to have been shy, the more retiring of the two.

Almost untouched by the blaze, neat piles of fresh lumber sat in the front yard Saturday afternoon, as children poked around in the ashes. Neighbors said the wood was going to be used to build an addition to one of the houses.

The night before the fire, Rogelina Verduzco had made plans with the two sisters to go out the next day to spread their Jehovah’s Witness faith. Verduzco said the sisters had wanted to go door-to-door early in the morning, but the cold weather dissuaded them. They agreed to go later.

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Shortly before noon, when Verduzco arrived to pick them up, the house was a mass of cinders and blackened debris. Charred Bible tracts littered the room where the sisters died.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Verduzco said, weeping.

Families Displaced

In another early morning blaze, six people were injured, four families displaced and more than $300,000 damage caused to a Victorian-style duplex southwest of downtown.

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The fire in the 1400 block of South Magnolia Avenue was attributed to faulty wiring in the attic.

One firefighter fell from a ladder and was burned; three others also suffered injuries, all of which were minor. Two civilians were treated for smoke inhalation.


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