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Fire Victims Eulogized as Martyrs : Funeral: Deaths in Westlake apartment blaze will not be in vain if future disasters are prevented, Cardinal Mahony tells 400 mourners.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Calling the victims of Monday’s Westlake apartment fire martyrs, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony presided over a funeral Mass for nine of them on Friday and expressed hope that the deaths will spur city authorities to heighten their vigilance on housing conditions.

“If, in fact, their lives serve to provide protection to others, then their martyrdoms will not have been in vain,” Mahony told about 400 mourners at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the Pico-Union district west of downtown.

Nine flower-bedecked metal coffins lined the aisles of the imposing Romanesque structure. The 10th victim was buried after a separate service Friday afternoon.

Among Friday’s mourners were elementary school classmates of two of the dead children and a Fire Department honor guard of about two dozen firefighters, dressed in formal black uniforms.

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Grief-stricken relatives and friends appeared numb.

Earlier, nine hearses had pulled up in front of the church and parked along West 9th Street, which was closed off for the service.

“I’m shattered,” Atanasio Camargo, a Mexican immigrant restaurant worker who lost three children and his pregnant wife, told reporters before the services. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Many in attendance were impoverished immigrants from Mexico and Central America who closely identify with those who died in the suffocating blaze at 330 South Burlington Ave. Fire officials say the owners failed to correct a faulty alarm system and other fire code violations.

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Many mourners, accustomed to the crowded living conditions of the area, said the same misfortune could have befallen them.

“We’re pleading with all the landlords around here to put alarms in these buildings,” said Alicia Jaldana, a Salvadoran mother of two who lives down the street from the fire site in an apartment that she said lacks required fire-warning devices.

“We’re all worried that the same thing could happen to us,” added Jaldana, who said the calamity has prompted her to look for a new, safer residence.

“We’re all vulnerable,” said Doris Cadillo, an immigrant from Honduras. “We could all be suffering the same losses as these families.”

In his homily, Mahony called for institution of whatever regulatory reforms are needed to prevent a repeat of the disaster--the city’s fourth-deadliest fire.

“If their tragic deaths serve any good purpose,” the cardinal said, “it is to help bring about protection for the rest of the millions of people who live in this city and county.”

At the conclusion of the 1 1/2-hour Mass, the cardinal walked twice around the caskets, sprinkling them first with holy water and then with incense, the fragrance filling the church. The prelate then followed a procession of priests and others out to the vestibule, where families were blessed and presented with brass crucifixes from atop the coffins.

As he descended the church steps, Jairo Morales, 26, a Guatemalan immigrant who works in a textile factory, grasped the crucifix tightly. His wife, Rosalia Ruiz, 21, who was almost nine months pregnant, died in the fire, along with her unborn child.

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Stepping out into the bright spring sunlight were about 70 students from Pacific Palisades School, the elementary school attended by Leiver Verdugo, 11, and his brother, William, 9, both of whom were lost in the blaze, along with their sister, Yadira, 6.

The Verdugo children were born in Mexico, but their 6-month-old brother, who survived, was a U.S. native. Like other neighborhood children, the Verdugos had been taken by bus each morning from the densely populated Westlake district to Pacific Palisades, an affluent hilltop community overlooking the sea.

“The children needed a sense of closure about their classmates,” said Marilyn Van Leeuwen, a Pacific Palisades teacher, who marshaled her pupils for the ride back to the school in a yellow bus. “They needed the opportunity to say goodby to them.”

The students, many sobbing, paused along Green Avenue in an impromptu tribute to their fallen friends.

In Spanish, their teacher reminded them: “We’re here to celebrate their lives.”

During his homily, Cardinal Mahony had urged the youths to find new friends among their classmates.

A large card of condolence signed by scores of students was addressed to Elias Verdugo Vasquez, the father of the three dead children, who also mourned the children’s mother, Alexandria Roblero.

“Esteemed Mr. Verdugo,” the missive read in Spanish, “May God bless and guide you.”

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Verdugo, 29, has been disabled since January after being burned when a stove exploded at a Glendale restaurant where he was working.

“I have nothing left,” the distraught father said earlier this week. “I want to bring my . . . family back to Mexico. That is where they belong.”

The school has set up a fund for the Verdugo family. It is among several fund-raising efforts for the victims, including separate drives by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the American Red Cross.

The fire left more than 125 people homeless, many of whom have been living in a temporary Red Cross shelter in the gymnasium of a city high school.

In all, the caskets at the funeral Mass contained the remains of 11, including three mothers (two of them pregnant), two fetuses and six children. The two fetuses were placed with their mothers in the coffins. The other victim, a 15-month-old child of Guatemalan parents, was buried Friday in Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.

The other remains are all to be returned to Mexico and Guatemala for burial, authorities said, in line with the families’ wishes. McCormick Mortuaries has donated its services, and Continental Airlines has agreed to fly the bodies south, probably Tuesday, for a reduced fee. The archdiocese is helping with the families’ costs.

As the funeral ended, neighborhood residents watched from a nearby apartment complex--a former convent now filled with new immigrants.

“We wish we could help those families,” said Julia Diego, a 29-year-old mother of two who is a recent arrival from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. “We feel for their suffering, but we have little to give them.”


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