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Boy Dies in Fire After Officers Restrain Father

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A frantic father helped rescue four of his children from their burning apartment Friday morning but was blocked by police officers from reaching a fifth child who remained trapped and screaming in his bedroom.

“I opened the window and I heard him crying, ‘Dad, Dad!’ ” said Joe De La Riva, a 28-year-old salesman, wiping tears from his eyes. “I knew he was only a few feet away. They told me I couldn’t go in, that there is too much smoke. . . . I told them, ‘Can’t you hear him? Can’t you hear him?’ ”

Four-year-old Jimmy De La Riva, described by friends and family members as a quiet but friendly youngster who loved to play Nintendo, was pronounced dead at the scene of the Bliss Lane fire. It was the second major blaze in Tustin in as many days, following a fire Thursday at the Cook Book Restaurant that caused an estimated $1 million in damage.

Damage in Friday’s fire was estimated at $80,000, but the loss of his rented, three-bedroom apartment mattered little to De La Riva as he stood grieving among neighbors and relatives just a few dozen yards from the site of his son’s death.

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Recounting the desperate moments of the blaze, De La Riva said he was awakened about 8 a.m. by the shouts of his two oldest sons, Joseph, 7, and Adam, 6, and found a couch on fire in the living room. His youngest son, Micah, 3, had apparently been playing with a cigarette lighter, De La Riva said.

With De La Riva shouting at them to get out, the older boys ran out the front door. The father, meanwhile, stayed behind to try to push the burning couch outside behind them, he said.

But the flames spread to the walls and roof of the living room, forcing De La Riva to retreat and take his 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Sarah, and Micah out through a sliding glass door in his kitchen.

Once outside, De La Riva realized that Jimmy was missing. The older boys told him that Jimmy was still in a bedroom, and De La Riva raced around the side of the house and thrust open a bedroom window--only to be restrained by two Tustin police officers who pulled him back as his son screamed for help inside, he said.

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Fire officials said the situation was too dangerous to allow De La Riva to re-enter the burning apartment.

“His natural tendency is to go to the child,” Orange County Fire Capt. Hank Raymond said. “We’re just lucky somebody restrained him, or we could have had two fatalities.”

Immediately after the father was pulled away, a police officer and a firefighter broke the window and climbed into the room after the boy but were driven back by smoke, heat and flames, Raymond said.

The police officer, Chuck Carvajal, received a severe cut to his left shin and was taken to the Health Care Medical Center in Tustin, where he received 15 to 20 stitches and was released, Tustin Police Capt. Steve Foster said.

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The firefighter, Ray Monreal, cut his left hand on a shard of glass as he gripped the window frame. He was taken to Western Medical Center in Anaheim, treated for the minor injury and released, Raymond said.

Jimmy’s body, retrieved later from the apartment, was burned beyond recognition, a fire investigator said.

De La Riva and his relatives said they were upset that police did not allow De La Riva to try to save Jimmy.

“The child is in there burning, and they don’t let the father go back in,” said the child’s grandmother, Josie Ruiz. “A parent would do anything to save the child. If you don’t want a policeman to go in, I understand, but I don’t understand why they wouldn’t let a father go in.

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“Now he (the father) has to live with this for the rest of his life.”

De La Riva, who plans to have his family stay with his mother-in-law until they can find a new place, said a home smoke detector sounded but only after he had been alerted to the fire by his sons.

About 45 firefighters responded to the fire at the four-unit complex at 15991 Bliss Lane and brought the blaze under control by 8:33 a.m., preventing the flames from spreading to the three adjoining apartments, Raymond said.

“I’m surprised we didn’t lose the whole complex,” said Battalion Chief John Howlind.

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De La Riva, a salesman at a building supply store, was caring for the children because his wife, Lori, works the overnight shift at a post office, family members said.

Neighbors, relatives and trained professionals gathered outside the charred structure to console the family members.

“They’re in pretty bad shape,” said Alicia McDowell, a volunteer psychologist with the Red Cross. “Lori was having a real hard time. She was really angry at the police. You want to blame someone or something.

“I asked her, ‘Lori, do you believe in God? I believe in God, and when we die we find peace.’ She cried very hard after that, and I held her,” McDowell said. “She said after that, ‘You know, I know where Jimmy is now. I know he’s in heaven, and there’s peace for him.’ ”

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Jimmy was a friendly child who hardly ever said a word but was outgoing enough to play with neighborhood kids regularly, friends and family members said.

“He was my friend,” said 11-year-old Elizabeth Balerio, who lives across the street. “He always came to my house to play with me--Nintendo or with my kitty. He was small and quiet. He was so quiet he didn’t even touch my toys.”

The De La Rivas had moved into the quiet, ethnically mixed neighborhood with the help of the Orange County housing office nearly two years ago, the apartment owner said. She would not give her name.

“Everyone is saying it’s pretty sad. They feel terrible,” said Sylvia Diaz, 33, who lives around the corner. “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go around my house and take away all the matches and lighters. I’m just going to keep one lighter for me in my purse.”

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Raymond said the Orange County Fire Department is seeing more and more children who accidentally start fires playing with matches and lighters. A free fire safety class, usually offered once every three months, was given to youngsters three times last month alone by firefighters to try to address the rising problem, he said.

Raymond said the fire could have been prevented if a single roof sprinkler system had been installed. But fitting old apartments with sprinklers is not required by law, he said.

Vin Nguyen, 48, lives on a second-floor apartment adjoining the burned unit. He said he was leaving to go to work when he heard the commotion and learned the next-door apartment was on fire. He quickly rushed his wife and two sons outside. His apartment received minimal damage.

“I feel very lucky,” Nguyen said. “If the firemen came later--maybe a minute more--I wouldn’t have anything.”

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Times staff writer Davan Maharaj contributed to this report.


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