Barbecue Used as Heater Kills Mother, 2 Children : Tragedy: Third child and woman's sister survive. Apparently to save money, furnace was not used.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Making Christmas decorations at a nearby factory by day and frying hamburgers at night, Maria Gonzales feverishly worked to earn money. There were Christmas presents to buy for her three children, and she wanted to move her parents to Tijuana from Mexico's interior so she could visit them more often.

One way to save, she apparently decided, was to avoid using the wall furnace in her apartment, the one that soaked her for up to $100 a month in gas bills.

The choice cost the life of the 32-year-old woman and her two youngest children. The three succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning from a seemingly cheaper source of heat--a charcoal barbecue.

After cooking carne asada on the grill Saturday evening, Gonzales brought the 18-inch diameter, camping-style barbecue kettle--charcoals still glowing hot--first into her living room and then into her tiny but tidy bedroom to warm the place.

She placed a piece of aluminum foil beneath the kettle, so as not to scorch the carpeting, before she, 6-year-old Ernesto and 5-year-old Eliana snuggled together in the queen-size bed, authorities reconstructed.

Authorities believe the three succumbed, unconscious, to the carbon monoxide gas within an hour. Their bodies were discovered behind the locked bedroom door Monday morning.

"She was obviously strapped for money. But the hazard of trying to save money by using a barbecue for heat is no benefit. . . ," said Chino Police Sgt. Ed Cisneros.

On Tuesday, the mostly Latino residents living at the modest apartment complex gathered in small groups around the drained swimming pool, surrounded by a chain-link fence where clothes were hung to dry. They talked of the nice lady with the cherubic face and the long, wavy brown hair, disarming neighbors with her ready smile and her playful spanks on children's behinds, delivered with a giggle.

"A lot of people here cried when they found out," said apartment manager Jaime Centeno. "They had never seen this problem before."

Gonzales, who was separated from her husband, rented the apartment for $570 a month. To help make ends meet, she sublet the other bedroom to a male acquaintance, a practice not uncommon in the complex.

That's why she typically would lock her own bedroom door.

But the man moved out a month ago, putting Gonzales in a pinch. Living paycheck to paycheck, she paid her December rent in two installments so she wouldn't fall out of favor, while still trying to put money aside for Christmas and for her parents.

During the day, she walked a few miles to a factory that makes Christmas presents for a charity fund-raising organization. To accommodate the second job, she switched her daytime hours to night at Baker's, the popular fast-food drive-through that is next to the apartment complex.

On Saturday, Gonzales walked a mile to the local swap meet, a favorite pastime to buy items for handmade Christmas presents for friends.

She treated her brood to barbecued carne asada that evening, and at bedtime, she and the two youngest children retreated--with the hot kettle--into her bedroom.

Her oldest daughter, 12-year-old Candi, and Gonzales' 16-year-old sister, Cori Gonzales, bedded down as usual in the living room.

The next morning, said family friend Irma Villegas, the two older girls awoke to silence and figured Gonzales had left with the two smaller children to run errands. Because there were no signs of them by nightfall Sunday, Candi and Cori spent the night with Irma.

The next morning, on Monday, they called authorities.

The Fire Department broke through the bedroom door and discovered Ernesto's body on the bed, his mother's and sister's sprawled on the floor.

By now, the kettle was cold, the embers an ashen gray.

Authorities checked the appliances in the home. All worked perfectly, including the wall furnace, Cisneros said.

"We asked the gas company how much it would cost to operate it, and they said $100 a month, because of its age," he said.

People might scoff at the notion of using cooking fires for room heating, but Cisneros said other cultures adopt the practice. "It may have been standard operating procedure for her in Mexico, but there are probably provisions for ventilation there," he said.

Chino Valley Fire Department spokesman Dan Coffman said charcoal is particularly deadly because once lit, it emits little smell or smoke.

Carbon monoxide, he noted, has nearly 600 times the affinity for red blood cells as oxygen, adhering to the cells and effectively all but blocking the exchange of oxygen to the bloodstream. Carbon monoxide poisoning creates dizziness, headaches and disorientation.

Authorities plan to distribute bilingual flyers throughout the complex and other places in Chino to alert residents to the danger.

The San Bernardino County office of Child Protective Services has taken temporary charge of the two surviving children until they are rejoined with family members in Mexico, a spokesman said.

At Baker's, Maria Gonzales' boss, eyes tearing, spoke of her as a woman who never complained about her financial plight, always had a neat appearance and was pleasant to co-workers and customers.

"She was a very strong woman," Alma Trujillo said. "Even working two jobs, she never complained."

Firefighters and police officers who were first on the scene are still coming to grips with the tragedy.

"The first thing they saw when they got inside the apartment was a small, artificial Christmas tree," Cisneros said. "Beneath it were just two, small presents, one for each of the two children who died."

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