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Torrance Rest Home Fire Kills 2

Times Staff Writer

A late-night fire sparked by a portable heater at a Torrance board-and-care home killed two residents and critically burned a third, authorities said Monday.

A fourth resident was hoisted by the waist and carried to safety by neighbor Ken Roberts, who heard screams about 11 p.m. Sunday and rushed across a cul-de-sac to the Anchor Guest Home on Fonthill Avenue.

Roberts said the live-in caregiver, Evelyn Refuerzo, 55, was standing outside the bedroom where the fire had started, screaming and unable to get into the window she had smashed to try to reach a man she identified as Fred Savage.

“Her hands were cut from breaking the window, but she said the smoke came blowing out and she couldn’t get in. She was devastated,” he said.

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Fire Department senior inspector Mike Friege said the caretaker’s son, John, 25, who also lives at the home, first heard the smoke alarm and woke his mother. Refuerzo ran down the hall and, from the doorway of Savage’s room, saw a space heater on fire between her and Savage, who was calling for help. She called 911, but, when she returned to the bedroom, she could not overcome the heat and smoke, and ran outside to enter from a window.

Meanwhile, her son rushed across the hallway and tried to wake the two men who shared that room. He could not rouse Edward Dunn, but grabbed Thomas Short, estimated to be between 60 and 70, and led him to safety, Friege said.

“John, bless his soul, held that man’s hand and walked him through the smoke and out of the house,” Friege said.

Roberts had by now entered the house, where dense smoke shrouded the ceiling. Despite resistance from Albert Arnold, he carried the man outside. Some of the 32 firefighters who arrived prevented Roberts from re-entering the house.

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Also rescued from the house was Emma Fine, thought to be between 80 and 90, who suffered second and third-degree burns over 20% of her body. She remained in critical condition at Torrance Memorial Hospital, Friege said.

The fire moved so swiftly that in the six minutes before firefighters arrived, the interior of the six-bedroom house was completely gutted, said Fire Capt. Leigh McArthur.

“The little space heater was the culprit as far as the source of ignition for the fire,” McArthur said. “Given the speed of the fire, we believe the two men who died probably had perished before we even got on scene.”

The Los Angeles County coroner did not release victims’ names, but Friege, neighbors of the longtime board-and-care facility and its licensed operator, Gertrude Brito, identified them to the degree they could. Savage was in his early 60s, and used a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis.

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Refuerzo told Roberts and his wife, Sherry, that she loved Savage like family.

“He was like a grandpa to me,” Roberts recalled her saying.

He recalled that Refuerzo’s lively karaoke sessions with her five residents could be heard all down the 16800 block of Fonthill Avenue.

Brito, who with her husband also operates two other homes also named Anchor Guest Home, said she sold the Fonthill facility about six months ago. The new owners are in the process of taking over the board-and-care license.

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Friege said the operation had complied with state laws and its license, and had passed inspection in November.

“The state does not require more than one caretaker for six residents, which this home was licensed to care for,” Friege said. “And if you look at what happened here, three people were rescued by three people. It is unfair to expect a caretaker like this, who is 100 pounds, to rescue up to six people who are, in the case of the men, 180 to 200 pounds each.”

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Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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