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2 Children, Left Home Alone, Die in Apartment Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two young children were killed, and a third was injured Thursday, when a fire sent thick smoke coursing through the city-owned San Ysidro apartment where the youngsters had been left unattended, authorities and witnesses said.

The blaze started when the children, who had been left without adult supervision, began striking matches, apparently near a mattress, said Capt. Al MacDonald of the San Diego Fire Department. The mother of at least one of the children had left them alone while she went shopping, MacDonald said.

The Metro Arson Strike Team, composed of members of the Fire and Police Departments, continued to investigate the incident.

San Diego police homicide detectives were also investigating, but authorities would not confirm that anyone was in custody in connection with the incident, which occurred shortly before 5 p.m.

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Dead at the scene were a 4-year-old girl, Marcella Ausbie, and a 2-year-old boy, Lamar Calimee. It could not be determined definitively if all three victims were related.

The injured child, Daniel Cowan, a boy about 18 months old, was recuperating from smoke inhalation at the UC San Diego Medical Center, a hospital spokeswoman said. He suffered no burns and was expected to recover, the spokeswoman said.

Two witnesses, Hilda Covarrubias and Leon Gray, both of whom said they were staying at the complex and arrived at the scene before firefighters--told reporters that the children had been left alone in bedrooms on the top floor of the two-story, beige stucco residence.

Both said they broke windows, entered the apartment and attempted to reach the children, but the dense smoke made it impossible to climb the stairs leading to the second-floor bedrooms. The children’s cries could be heard on the stairwell, the witnesses said.

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“It was so smoky you couldn’t see the top of the stairs,” Gray said. “I was about to faint,” added Gray, still distraught that he had been unable to pull the children to safety.

Gray also said he had hoisted a ladder to the apartment’s second-story window in an effort to enter the building, but the smoke again held him back.

Two adult women, carrying grocery bags, arrived at the apartment on foot as smoke streamed from the vents and windows, said the two witnesses, who said it appeared that either one or both of the woman may have been the mother or mothers of the children. The two women, clearly frightened, immediately attempted to rescue the trapped youths, the witnesses said.

“One of the ladies dropped her grocery bags and ran like crazy,” said Covarrubias, 33, of Chula Vista, who was staying with friends at the apartment next to the site of the fire.

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Despite thick smoke, the two women succeeded in climbing the apartment’s stairs and reaching the second floor, but they could not open the doors to the upstairs bedrooms where the children were, the witnesses said.

Firefighters arrived about 4:55 p.m. and found heavy smoke emanating from the structure, authorities said. They quickly extinguished the fire, officials said.

Damage was estimated at $5,500, including $4,000 to the structure and $1,500 to its contents, including the mattress that was believed to have ignited, fire officials said. It was not immediately known if the apartment had a smoke alarm, a Fire Department spokesman said.

As fire investigators attempted to determine the cause of the blaze, the body of the girl lay covered in a white blanket on the grass in front of the two-story, beige stucco building. A firefighter later placed a yellow tarpaulin on the body to protect it from a light rain.

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Nearby, grieving relatives and friends shed tears for the children, incredulous at the tragedy.

“They were only babies!” cried one man, who witnesses said may have been an uncle. Police and firefighters restrained him from entering the building.

Called Sycamores West, the complex is in the 400 block of Sycamore Road, less than a mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border.


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