Michelle Specter, her eyes filled with tears, looked out the living-room window of her Sherman Oaks apartment toward the charred shell of an apartment a few feet away. The smell of smoke still hung in the air.
“God, how am I going to live here anymore?” she said. “Every time I look here, I’m going to remember what happened. I’m going to look out the window and see that.”
Specter was baby-sitting Benjamin and Rebecca Kopulsky in the nearby apartment Friday night when a Christmas tree caught fire, trapping her and the children inside. Specter tried to lead the 5-year-old boy to safety, but he inexplicably broke free from her grasp.
Rebecca, 2, was rescued by a neighbor, treated for smoke inhalation and released from a hospital Sunday night. Firefighters found Benjamin’s body by the front door of the apartment in the 15100 block of Magnolia Boulevard.
“I loved them both, but Ben was my buddy,” Specter said. “I was going to take him horseback riding today.”
Sunday afternoon, as Specter sat on a low wall outside the burned-out shell, clutching her dog Max, neighbors came by, hugged her and told her that there was nothing she could have done. Still, she could not help second-guessing herself.
“If I could have just gotten out, everything would have been OK,” she said. “It would have saved so much time if I could have gotten out of the front door.”
Specter, 22, a psychology student at Cal State Northridge, had worked all day Friday and arrived home late when Jack and Kelly Kopulsky called and asked her to baby-sit that night. Despite plans to go to a movie with friends, she immediately accepted.
But an evening that began with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles card game later turned to tragedy.
The children were asleep and Specter had just spoken with a friend on the telephone, expressing concern about the dry Christmas tree still brightly lit. Suddenly, the tree exploded in flames and a fast-moving fire quickly filled the front room with smoke about 10:45 p.m.
Specter said her first thought was to get Benjamin out of the apartment, then go back for Rebecca. “We tried to go to the door, but we couldn’t get to the door,” she said. “The door wouldn’t open.”
She carried the boy to a back bedroom and put him down to unlock the window of the ground-floor apartment. While she was struggling with the window, an explosion rocked the front room and the flames became even more intense.
With the window finally open, Specter told the boy he would have to jump out. “I thought I had him, and I thought I got him out at first.”
But Benjamin apparently let go of her hand and ran back toward the front door.
“Why did he let go? I thought I had him. I had him in my hand.”
Specter jumped out the window and screamed for help.
One of the first people she saw, even before firefighters, was a free-lance photographer with a video camera, shooting the blaze. As Specter screamed, “Get the baby! Get the baby!” neighbors rushed to the apartment.
“I saw her running; she couldn’t talk,” said Shapoor Azimi, who lives next-door to the Kopulskys and made the emergency call that summoned firefighters. “And I could see she was trying to tell us that somebody was in there.”
Azimi said he ran around to the back of the apartment to see if he could save the children, but the heat was too intense. Assistant apartment manager Jerry Hockman kicked in a window of another back bedroom, climbed in and picked up Rebecca, passing her out the window to a neighbor.
Two days later, as Specter sat in her apartment, she looked out the living room window in disbelief. Amid the rubble, the trunk of the Christmas tree was still visible.
“I can’t believe I was even in there.”
And she can’t understand why the boy ran back to the front of the apartment.
“Why didn’t Benjamin hold on? Why?” she said, her voice almost a whisper, breaking into a sob. “I mean, didn’t he think that I’d save him? I told him we couldn’t go out that way. Why didn’t he listen to me?”