With only the clothes on their backs, three families living in an overcrowded, one-story house escaped into the chilly darkness Saturday morning and watched helplessly as their few possessions burned as the house was consumed by flames.
No one was injured in the blaze, but the 18 residents--nine adults and nine children--were left to wonder where they would live next.
“There’s nothing,” 21-year-old resident Carlos Garcia said as he surveyed the damage later Saturday. Away at work when the fire started around 1:30 a.m., Garcia was just discovering 12 hours later that all his possessions were in ruins.
“It’s all burned,” he said, holding his car keys charred by the fire.
Firefighters’ efforts were hindered by the illegal addition of at least two rooms to the house, resulting in a layout that was difficult to negotiate with firefighting equipment, said Battalion Chief Tim Graber. Rooms had been added onto the front and back porches in order to crowd in more residents, he said.
The first firefighters on the scene encountered heavy smoke and intense heat, Graber said.
“The different partitions and all the locked doors between each area (of the house) severely hampered our ability to go through the house and get our hoses through the house,” Graber said. “This is a direct example of why the city has been pushing for clarification of its ordinance that limits the number of people in a dwelling.”
The house originally was built as a two-bedroom, one-bath home, Graber said, but at least five rooms were used as bedrooms.
“The front room barely had enough room for one twin bed sitting in the corner, and 1 1/2 feet of space between that and the other wall,” the fire official said. “It appeared the mother and father shared the twin bed and the baby slept on the floor.”
Graber said tenants also paid rent to sleep on the four couches in the living and dining rooms. It was not known how many residents were in the house at the time of the fire.
Although some of the residents said they suspect a faulty gas heater in the basement ignited the blaze, Graber said the cause is still under investigation. However, he confirmed it began in the basement and shot up through the center of the house and to the attic before spreading throughout the structure.
“One of the men sleeping on the couch almost directly over the fire said he awoke to the smell of smoke,” Graber said.
Justina Garcia, 23, who lived in the house with three small children, said the man who initially smelled the smoke awoke the primary tenant of the house, who then alerted the other residents.
“As we left, the house was filled with smoke,” she said, adding that they barely escaped in time. Her children, she said, were almost naked.
“Once we were out, we couldn’t go back in because of the fire and smoke,” Garcia said.
Resident Regoberto Hernandez, 31, said he also had been working overnight and arrived in time to see the flames shooting out of the basement.
Asked if he had a place to stay, Hernandez said simply, “I don’t know.”
The American Red Cross’ disaster team stepped in to provide temporary food and shelter, and a caseworker was expected to be assigned to the residents Monday, spokesman Doug Gavilanes said. The volunteer group had also obtained medicine for a 2-month-old baby with a cold, Gavilanes added.
“The only things they had burned,” said Maria Gonzalez, a friend of one of the victims.
By midday, Garcia was wearing canvas shoes given to her by a neighborhood resident, and her youngest child wore a torn T-shirt that was also donated.
A couple of residents sifted through the debris, but others merely stood on the sidewalk and stared into the house. Burned clothes, cushions from couches and a water-soaked teddy bear were scattered along the sides of the house.
The landlord, Tjoa Ben Tionghok of Los Angeles, did not approach the residents but sat in his vehicle, waiting for a contractor to place boards around the burned shell of the house.
He denied that the house had 18 residents.
“There’s only four bedrooms,” he said. “They (extra people) were visiting. When I came, there were people talking, drinking beer. They were visiting.”
He also denied that extra rooms had been added illegally and explained that the room at the rear of the house was intended to be used as storage space, and not as a bedroom.
The owner said he had no plans to help relocate the tenants.
“This is the first time it happens to me,” he said, adding that the American Red Cross is offering aid. “I am not responsible,” he said.
David Hermance, community preservation supervisor, said city officials have previously filed legal documents against Tionghok alleging substandard housing conditions regarding other properties he owns in the city.