A car fire ignited by a cigarette lighter that killed an 11-month-old girl last Friday was “completely accidental,” a fire investigator said Monday.
Ray McLaughlin, an Anaheim Fire Department investigator, reached his conclusion after interviewing an adult passenger and two children who escaped the blaze in the parking lot of the Woodhaven Apartments, 1240 N. State College Blvd.
“At this time, it looks completely accidental,” McLaughlin said. “There doesn’t seem to be anything that indicates anything else.”
Cassandra Romero, who was strapped in a car seat, burned to death after one of her siblings started the fire while playing with a lighter. During McLaughlin’s initial investigation, he also examined what role, if any, may have been played by Gloria Cordero, a family friend who was in the front seat.
But on Monday, McLaughlin said the fire had spread so fast that he ruled out foul play or negligence.
Cordero, 35, who was in the front seat, was left with the children while their mother, Christina Romero, 27, and Romero’s brother-in-law, Danny Romero, went inside the apartment complex to fill out a rental application.
Cordero said that she suddenly noticed smoke coming up from beneath the driver’s seat. She frantically pulled the older children to safety but was unable to remove the sleeping Cassandra from the car seat through the thick black smoke.
Witnesses said it was only four to five minutes before the car was engulfed in flames.
“The gal was sitting in the car with her back to the kids,” McLaughlin said, “and it doesn’t take much to set a blanket or a towel on fire.”
Over the weekend, McLaughlin and other fire investigators spent three hours examining the burned hulk of the family’s 1969 Buick Riviera. The veteran investigator said it was one of “the most tragic” examinations of his career.
On Monday, the investigation grew to include two other agencies, county Department of Social Services and Anaheim police, who visited the family at their Fullerton apartment, McLaughlin said.
“Social Services was there to size up the situation and provide any help if the children need counseling,” McLaughlin said.
Police routinely investigate children’s deaths, said Paul-Eugene Mann, an attorney hired by Christina Romero.
“The police visit was standard procedure,” Mann said. “Needless to say, the family members are absolutely grief stricken.”
At the family’s apartment, Cassandra’s uncle, Danny Romero, searched for words Monday to convey the sweetness of his baby niece’s character.
“I took a lot of time to be with her, and I still have images of her playing in her playpen,” he said.
“She was such a happy, bubbly baby,” Christina Romero said. “But she’s in a better place now. I have to think that.”
At the time of the fire, Christina Romero was looking for a new apartment to rent because her husband, William V. Romero, 27, as part of probation from jail, was ordered not to return to his Fullerton apartment, where the incident occurred that led to his arrest.
Romero was arrested Aug. 7, and later pleaded guilty to threatening a witness, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Wagner. A tenant who had called police after Romero’s brother refused to turn down loud music was told by William Romero she was going “to die.”
Romero “pleaded guilty to threatening a witness,” Wagner said, “and the judge gave him two months in jail and a probation that he leave those premises.”
Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood contributed to this article.