Seven-year-old Tracie Markiewicz was asleep on the living room couch at 6 a.m. Wednesday when her new puppy, Meto, started barking. Tracie awakened to a room full of smoke and flames.
"The puppy tried to save my life," Tracie said Wednesday morning as she stood covered in soot and holding a small brown teddy bear that firefighters gave her after they doused the flames that took just about everything her family owned.
But the 7-week-old Labrador retriever mix lost his life in the flames.
Tracie's 16-year-old brother and a family friend "went back into the house to get the puppy and the windows imploded, so they ran back out," Tracie's father, Daniel Markiewicz, said Wednesday evening as the family surveyed the remains of their boarded-up house.
Tracie and her four brothers, ages 3 to 16, had been sleeping in the living room because of the recent heat wave.
When they awoke, "The fire was this close to me and the puppy," Tracie said, holding her thumb and forefinger in the air to indicate the flames were only inches away.
All five children made it safely out of the Walker Avenue house, along with their day-care provider Robin Noyce, and the family's two cats. Besides losing the new puppy, the family lost a pet rabbit named Mr. Fluffy, which died of smoke inhalation.
A candle left burning on a divider between the kitchen and living room started the blaze, fire officials said, which then traveled through the area where the children were sleeping and to the rest of the three-bedroom one-story house, blackening walls, peeling back drywall and shattering windows along the way.
The flames, which gutted the house, left behind only piles of burned clothes and furniture, melted toys and shoes.
The children's mother, Beth Markiewicz, later said she had used the candle to provide light, then inadvertently left it burning when she ran out of the house about 6 a.m. to make the 75-mile drive to work.
After the smoke and flames woke Noyce, she said, she ran to the living room and began taking the younger children out of the house.
"The flames were really big by the time I got the kids out," said Noyce, who helps get the children off to school in the morning.
"When the 16-year-old came running out of the shower, the smoke and flames were so thick I couldn't even see him and he was only a foot in front of me. . . . I had to keep counting to make sure the kids were all there."
Noyce then ran to a neighbor's house to call the Fire Department and page the children's mother, who works in Norwalk at Metropolitan State Hospital.
"I was so scared," said Markiewicz, an office technician. "All I thought about was the kids. Come to think about it, I didn't even ask Robin how she was, just the kids."
By the time Markiewicz and her husband, who was already in Norwalk, returned to their house a few blocks off Lewis Road, the fire had been extinguished and the American Red Cross of Ventura County had come to their aid, offering three nights in a hotel and a voucher for clothing.
She said the only thing that really mattered was that her children and friend, Robin, whom she called "her hero," were alive and well.
"I'm sad about losing all of our stuff in the house," she said, hugging her children. "We'll just have to start from scratch. I'm so thankful they made it. What would I do if I lost one of my children?"