Two mariachi band members visiting from Mexico were killed and a third was badly burned early Wednesday when flames ripped through their touring van in Compton, trapping the screaming men inside as friends tried vainly to free them.
The 1 a.m. fire spread quickly to a one-story house just north of the driveway where the van was parked, gutting the three-bedroom home and leaving its 12 occupants homeless but unhurt, authorities said.
Compton fire officials said the blaze appears to have been started accidentally, possibly by an electrical failure in the van.
Neighborhood residents and friends of the band, called Los Rebeldes del Norte, awoke to the smell of smoke and the shouts of " Ayudame! "--"Help me!" in Spanish--from the three men inside the van in a lot in the 500 block of North Poinsettia Avenue.
"We could see two of them inside," said Edward Juaregui, 25, who lives behind the house that burned, "and we were trying to break the windows and bust the doors down to get them out but we couldn't."
Other witnesses said the van doors appeared sealed shut from the heat. Some friends speculated that the men--who had stayed up talking and practicing their music in the van--may have fallen asleep, hindering their escape. Fire officials said the back of the van was crammed with crates, musical instruments and other belongings, so the only other escape route appeared to have been blocked by flames.
Only one of the three men made it out of the van, breaking through a side window, witnesses said. Transported to County-USC Medical Center, the man--whose identity was not immediately released--was burned over 43% of his body and was in critical condition.
The body of a band member was found in the driver's seat. Witnesses said he tried to back up the vehicle once he realized he couldn't get out. The second victim was found lying on a bunk, Compton fire investigators said. Friends identified the victims as Miguel Angel Arredondo, 30, and Melchor Najera Chavez, in his mid-30s. Fire officials could not confirm the identities.
"We don't know yet whether the fire was too intense for them to get out or what," fire investigator Marvin Porter said.
The victims, part of a four-member band from Culiacan, a city north of Mazatlan on the west coast of Mexico, had been staying in Compton for about the last month with friends they knew from their homeland, and they had performed several times at Latino functions.
"They were like family," said neighbor Lorena Manjarrez, 21, who lives just south of the driveway where the van was parked for the night. "Everybody's still pretty shocked."
The family that lived in the burned house did not know the band members before their arrival in Compton a few weeks ago but had agreed to let them keep their van in their lot, the only one on the site, while the men stayed next door with Manjarrez's family.
The seven adults and five children displaced by the fire are being housed temporarily by the Red Cross. They declined comment. Building owner Amin Velasquez said the three-bedroom, $100,000 home was a total loss.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this story.