A fast-moving wall of fire roared across the common attic of an apartment complex Monday, engulfing a firefighter who plunged through a burning roof and leaving 17 families homeless.
Miraculously, the firefighter walked out unscathed a few minutes later. And although hundreds of residents were at home in the Ridgewood Gardens complex on North Temple Street, none was reported injured.
“My heart just almost stopped,” said firefighter Mike Prey, who was standing next to Capt. Jim Yost when Yost fell. “That was my captain.”
The four-alarm fire was reported at 4:09 p.m. and spread quickly. As firefighters from four cities converged and helicopters sprayed water, fleeing residents watched in horror as their apartments were enveloped in choking black smoke and a solid line of orange flame.
Three hours after it began, the fire had destroyed all but the shell of one building in the 368-unit apartment complex.
Manager Cesar Nacuspag was one of the first to notice the fire, which started in a vacant second-floor apartment above a laundry room. Nacuspag, a maintenance man and Christian Genchi, a 14-year-old who was playing on his bicycle outside, ran to call the fire department and grab fire extinguishers. By the time they returned, the fire had burst from the apartment out the glass patio door and was spreading rapidly across the two-story building.
“We started running for No. 86,” the second-floor apartment, Nacuspag said. “The corridor was all filled with black smoke and you could barely see by that time. All we could do was open the door and that was it. We had to leave.”
Genchi, an eighth-grader at Kraemer Middle School, said he pulled a rag over his nose and ran the length of the first-floor hallway pounding on doors and yelling at people to get out.
Residents said there were tears and confusion as they ran outside when the smoke began to fill the buildings.
“There was a lot of fire,” Esmeral Rodriguez said. “My little brother and sister were screaming and crying.”
Rosa Gonzalez, 28, had gone to the grocery store for mayonnaise just before the fire. When she returned, the street was barricaded. She parked a block away and then ran to find her month-old baby and 6-year-old daughter, whom she had left with her 12-year-old sister.
a “I was thinking, ‘My family, my family. My family is in there,’ ” Gonzalez said.
She caught sight of her sister standing across the street from the burning apartment. Her 6-year-old, Lisa, had gotten the three parakeets out as well.
Yost, a 20-year firefighter, was battling the blaze on the roof when it gave way, sending him eight feet into the inferno. His fall was broken by an open-air balcony, and he radioed to say he was OK. Yost went back to fight the blaze, according to a Fire Department spokesman.
Firefighter Prey said Yost had been warning him to turn around and go back “when he dropped through.” Prey felt his own right boot give in the hot, spongy roof beneath him, but climbed off safely.
Yost, sopping wet and covered with soot and grime, declined comment on his fall, saying he did not want to worry his family. Although a camera captured his tumble, Yost said, “I don’t know if I want to see it.”
Bertha Ortega, 18, fled with no shoes, clad in only a tank top and shorts. Outside the flaming building, she saw her friend, Lucy Quinonez, 15, on the balcony of her smoke-filled second-story apartment.
“She was hanging from the railing and I helped her down,” she said.
A shaken Quinonez cried as she watched firefighters hose the fire that burned her family’s home. She and Ortega hugged and clutched each other.
“All my belongings are burning right now,” said Ortega’s 15-year-old brother, Jose.
The Ortega family said they lost about $8,000 cash that was saved for a summer vacation to visit relatives in Mexico.
But residents were deeply grateful that no one was hurt.
“I started looking for my wife and son, and thank God they were safe,” said Jorge Luna, who had just arrived home when the fire erupted.
Joustovo Olmedo, 28, who had lived in the building for three years with his cousin and 8-year-old brother, spent hours anxiously searching for them after a neighbor called him at work to tell him about the fire. At 6:30 p.m., he still had not located them in the crowd outside.
The apartment manager said that apartment where the blaze began was vacant, but that tenants said the fire might have been started by someone there using a candle. He said he told Anaheim fire authorities about the possible cause.
Resident Fernando Ortiz, 25, and other tenants recalled that another apartment caught fire about four months ago. He said the cause could have been people who wandered inside to smoke, a common occurrence in the building.
The fire, which raced through a common attic and a hallway that ran the length of the building, was mostly extinguished by 7 p.m., but there were still occasional bursts of flame and smoke.
Most tenants in the 30-year-old complex, which occupies both sides of the street, were able to return to their homes. But for 17 families, many of whom had recently emigrated to the United States, everything they owned was lost.
At a shelter set up by the Orange County Red Cross at nearby Kraemer Middle School, paramedics helped one woman who was suffering from heart trouble as about 45 others awaited assistance. Victims displaced by the fire sat numbly in front of a television tuned to a basketball game, later switched to a Mexican soap opera.
“We tried; we risked a lot to try to have a better life here,” said Jose Jaime Duran, 38, who emigrated seven years ago from Mexico and was living in a two-bedroom apartment with his wife and daughter and another family.
“It’s very painful to lose everything you have,” he said. “It’s painful to know that you have nothing more than what’s on your back.”
Marisela Cabanas, 28, came to Anaheim from Mexico two years ago with two children, leaving one behind in Mexico. Cabanas said the fire left her family destitute.
“The little that we have, it’s all gone,” she said. “We can’t go back to Mexico. We have nothing there, and now we have nothing here.”
Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Thao Hua, J.R. Moehringer, Emily Otani, David Reyes, Kim Sanchez and Esther Schrader and correspondents Debra Cano, Jeff Kass and Jennifer Leuer.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
At least 20 apartments destroyed.