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Fire Survivors Face Second Crisis: How to Rebuild Lives : Disaster: Most Westlake families who escaped the flames and smoke have few resources to start anew. Donors send help to Red Cross emergency shelter.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stunned and haunted by the tragedy that engulfed them, surviving residents of a fire-ravaged apartment complex in Westlake gathered Tuesday in a high school gymnasium and began to look toward an uncertain future.

“None of us know what we’ll do next,” said William Miranda, an El Salvadoran immigrant and former complex manager who escaped along with his wife and two children by jumping from his third-floor balcony into the arms of rescuers. “Who is going to help us? Where are we going to live? We have no money; we have nothing.”

He was among the more than 100 shocked survivors who sought succor at the Red Cross emergency shelter in the gym of Belmont High School, half a mile or so from the fire that left eight dead, plus two fetuses, and more than 40 injured.

The loss of life reverberated strongly throughout the largely immigrant Westlake/Pico-Union district west of downtown. Residents there share the bond of being new arrivals, struggling to get by amid the tight grid of derelict old apartment houses, once-elegant homes and new garden-style complexes. Impoverished immigrant families from Central America and Mexico cram together in an effort to reduce the burden of rent.

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“Everyone knows the area suffers from overcrowded housing conditions and absentee landlords,” noted Roberto Lovato, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center, who paid a visit to the temporary shelter.

All residents suffered material and emotional losses, but the dawning of a new day was most difficult for those such as Elias Verdugo Vasquez, a 29-year-old Mexican immigrant and restaurant worker who spent much of a traumatic evening going from hospital to hospital in the vain hope that he might find his four children alive.

But Verdugo’s longtime companion and their three children perished in the blaze, leaving his family the most devastated among the many victims.

A 6-month-old son, Alexis Verdugo, was in good condition Tuesday at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Hollywood, where the infant was treated for smoke inhalation. On Monday, the father carried the boy to safety from the family’s smoke-filled apartment on the third floor.

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But the elder Verdugo watched in horror as his panicked companion, Alejandria Roblero, fled in terror toward the choking hallway, followed by the three children, Leiver, 11, William, 9, and Yadira, 6.

“Daddy, Daddy, we’re all going to die!” the disconsolate Verdugo said he recalled one of his children yelling to him as he pleaded with them to change direction and head toward the window.

Firefighters found the mother and the three children, along with other victims, piled in the third-floor passage.

“I can’t speak,” Verdugo sobbed Tuesday as he paused outside the gutted building on Burlington Street where he and relatives had gone to recoup belongings. “I need help. We’re left without anything and I want to take my wife and children back to Mexico” for burial, he said.

Later, Verdugo, his hands still sooty from his harrowing escape from the building’s roof, fought back tears and reflected on what he could have done to avert this tragedy.

He and Roblero, he noted, had been together since age 13 in their native Tapachula, Mexico, in the southern state of Chiapas. Like others, he came north in search of opportunity, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illicitly and making his way to Los Angeles, joining other relatives. Roblero and family joined him in 1991.

“I came here to better myself and family,” Verdugo said Tuesday as he stood on the track outside Belmont High School. “Instead I ended up making everything worse.”

Like Verdugo, Jairo Morales, a 26-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, spent much of the evening suffering the uncertainly of not knowing what had become of a loved one--his wife, Rosalia Ruiz, who was almost nine months pregnant. Morales returned home from work Monday evening to discover the alarming havoc outside his Burlington Avenue apartment complex.

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“I’m looking for my wife,” the slim textile worker explained to a reporter.

At the hectic scene Monday and later at the temporary shelter, few fire officials were able to speak Spanish, heightening the confusion and uncertainty for Morales, Verdugo and others frantically seeking missing relatives.

After midnight, word came that Morales’ wife had been taken to Kaiser Permanente, where she remained in critical condition on Tuesday. However, her fetus’ heart stopped beating, said Linda Quon, a hospital spokeswoman.

“The doctors say it doesn’t look good for my wife,” a numbed Morales said Tuesday as he sat on a bench facing the makeshift green cots set up along the basketball court in the emergency shelter. “She’s in God’s hands now.”

Still struggling for life is Morales’ roommate in apartment 306, Eulalia Gaspar, also from Guatemala, who gave birth to a 3-pound boy during an emergency Cesarean section procedure after she was rushed to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan. The mother and child remained in critical but stable condition on Tuesday, said Sara Kaufman, a hospital spokeswoman.

At the high school shelter, families who survived the trauma reached out to those who had lost relatives and loved ones. People sought to comfort their former neighbors, often breaking into tears as they learned of the grief endured by friends and by those whom they had casually passed in the hallway.

“We lost everything, but we still have our children and we feel great sorrow for those who suffered death,” said Isabela Diego, a diminutive 19-year-old Kanjobal Indian from northern Guatemala.

On Monday, Diego jumped out of her second-floor apartment, shook off the pain and called to her waiting roommate, who tossed down four children, including Diego’s two infants. “I had make up my mind that if I would die, I would die with my children,” Diego said calmly, seated on a green cot as her 2-month-old infant, Pedro Francisco, swaddled in a Red Cross blanket, rested alongside her.

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Throughout the day, donors drove up to the high school with gifts of food, clothing, toys and other goods for the fire victims.

“I saw what happened to these people on television, and I felt I had to do what I could for them,” said Gabriela Guerrero, who came from Downey with a trunk brimming with donated toys and clothing.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles set up a special Westlake Fire Relief initiative, asking contributors to make checks payable to: Cardinal McIntyre Fund for Charity, 1400 W. 9th St., Los Angeles, 90015.

At the shelter, counselors and priests attempted to console victims and their relatives. Those who survived expressed thanks to area good Samaritans who came to their rescue, forming human chains to relay victims down balconies and placing themselves strategically to break the falls of infants and adults who jumped or were tossed from second- and third-story windows.

“All the young men from the neighborhood came out to help us,” said Irma Vasquez, a 23-year-old El Salvadoran mother of two who said she helped relay five children to safety, including her own two young ones.

Vasquez rigged a cord to drop the youths to helpers waiting below. She waited patiently until all five were safely down, then leaped toward waiting rescuers, injuring her arm slightly in the jump from the second-floor window.

Among those waiting below were members of the notorious 18th Street gang, who, witnesses say, quickly joined in the rescue effort.

“People like to put us down and call us cholos, but we’re not all criminals,” said Carlos Ingles, a bulky 18-year-old rescuer whose injured left hand was still bandaged Tuesday, a day after he caught six children and broke a window rescuing a trapped couple.

He and others returned to the Burlington Avenue building on Tuesday, watching as investigators sifted through the rubble and as former residents returned to reclaim what few belongings they could.

“At least we’re all together: we’re all well,” said Francisco Perez, a house painter from Mexico who arrived home from work Monday to find his wife and three children waiting for him at the police lines cordoning off their former home. “As long as we’re all here, we can make a new start.”


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