Frightened, confused and apparently convinced at first that their mother "was sleeping and didn't want to wake up," three young children survived alone for almost three days in a Westlake district apartment as their mother lay dead on the floor, authorities said Tuesday.
The children, ages 3 years, 2 years, and 5 months, were discovered about 9:45 a.m. Tuesday after the 3-year-old knocked on the door of a neighbor, who became alarmed and dialed 911.
Paramedics burst into the reeking apartment in the 500 block of South Bonnie Brae Street to find "a 36-year-old woman in an advanced state of decomposition."
Brian Humphrey, a spokesman for the Fire Department, said the children had apparently lived off scraps scavenged from the refrigerator by the 3-year-old. Officials said the entire unit was littered with bits of food.
One neighbor reported that the eldest boy had told her his mother "had a heart attack."
The coroner's office said that although the cause of death has not been determined, there were no signs of foul play. The woman recently had been under the care of a physician, who said he had been treating her for a serious heart condition, according to Scott Carrier, a spokesman for the coroner's office.
Despite their gruesome ordeal, the children were in remarkably good condition, Humphrey said.
"It's a miracle nothing (worse) happened to the children," said a neighbor, Bernice Napoles.
Humphrey said the youngest child "was in a somewhat dehydrated condition, but otherwise all right. The other two . . . were in good condition. It appeared that the 3-year-old had been taking care of the others."
The children were examined at California Hospital Medical Center and transferred to the care of the Department of Children's Services, officials said.
The identities of the woman and children were withheld pending notification of next of kin. Officials said they believed that the children's father was arrested several months ago and may be in jail. They said the dead woman may have had a sister in the East.
Sonia Gallardo, 19, a friend of the victim, said she last saw the woman Saturday night when the two paused to talk outside the building.
"She told me she was going to have an operation," Gallardo said. "She was supposed to call me about an hour later, but she never did."
Juliana Saravia, 12, who frequently ran errands for the ailing woman, said she too had been concerned. Juliana said she stopped by the apartment Sunday to see if everything was all right, but the 3-year-old "told me that she was sleeping and didn't want to wake up."
By Monday, police said, neighbors had begun to complain about the noise from a television set that had been blaring in the apartment since Saturday night. They also complained about a disagreeable odor that seemed to grow stronger by the hour.
After the 3-year-old alerted the neighbor, paramedics found the woman's body sprawled face-down on the floor beside her bed.