Hundreds homeless after fire

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of displaced residents fetched belongings Saturday from a fire-ravaged North Long Beach apartment complex as fire investigators combed the 310-unit property for clues to the fast-moving blaze that killed two people and injured 18.

The two died when the fire transformed a third-floor corridor into a horizontal chimney, overwhelming them with thick smoke and flames, fire officials said.

Firefighters found their bodies in the hallway four to five feet from a nearby stairway exit, said Long Beach arson investigator Capt. Pat Wills.

The couple apparently fled into the hallway at Paradise Garden Apartments when the blaze broke out late Friday afternoon.

"They were very close to possibly surviving, by getting to that exit," Wills said. They might also have lived if they had stayed in the apartment and moved to the balcony, to be rescued by firefighters, he added.

Friends identified the two as an Indian couple from New Delhi visiting their 32-old-son, who lived on the third floor.

The son declined to comment Saturday, but friends said he was devastated by their deaths. He was not at home when the fire started and had gone from hospital to hospital searching for his parents before fire officials identified their bodies early Saturday morning, friends said.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office had not released the names of the two as of Saturday evening.

Fire investigators believe the deadly blaze, in the north building of the complex, began with a stove-top fire in a first-floor unit shared by two students and swiftly spread to the second and third floors.

The apartments and hallways lacked sprinkler systems, but fire officials could not yet say whether sprinklers were required in the four-decade-old building. An investigation is pending.

Residents lined up Saturday outside the fire-damaged north building, which contains more than 100 units, waiting several hours to be escorted, two at a time, to their apartments so that they could collect clothes and other belongings. Each had about 10 minutes.

Some emerged toting baby books and photo albums, while others rescued pets and digital cameras. Some said they had no idea when they could return, if at all.

"Every unit in the north building is going to be unlivable, at least for the time being," said Fire Department spokesman Chris Milburn.

Dozens of people remained in line at nightfall, and rescue units brought in high-powered lights so that they could see their way through soot-blackened hallways. Most called themselves fortunate to be alive.

"I lost hope of everything being fine, and everything's OK," said Ximena Ramirez, 25, a Cal State Long Beach chemistry student who paid $715 a month for her studio apartment.

Some credited their neighbors for banging on their doors Friday to alert them to the fire. Some said that building alarms had been sounding recently for no reason, making them less wary that a real fire might have broken out.

"I heard the alarm, but I didn't do anything because they keep going off," said Daisy Arizmendi, 20.

Ramona Hyde, 48, said she had just finished watching TV when her neighbor knocked hard on her door.

"He said there was a fire. On my floor, there was no alarm at all," Hyde said.

Building owners could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Residents fled the building and watched as others were rescued from balconies and the injured were removed on stretchers. Most spent the night with relatives and friends, although some stayed at a Red Cross shelter across the street at Jordan High School.

One of the worst Long Beach apartment fires in recent memory, the blaze broke out shortly before 4 p.m. at the sprawling stucco complex at 6479 Atlantic Ave., near the city's northern border.

Among the injured were six firefighters.

The building owners planned to refund the tenants' December rents and security deposits, according to City Councilman Val Lerch, who represents the district and spent most of Saturday at the site.

That was confirmed by a representative of the building's management who asked not to be identified because of privacy concerns. He also said that city inspectors had reviewed repairs recently done at the complex.

"The Fire Department was satisfied with the work that was done, but they haven't given us their signature," the spokesman said. "We've been working closely with the department."

The complex is owned by Paradise Gardens, a limited partnership, and sits on leased land, he said.

Some fire officials say they were amazed at how fast the fire spread, leaping from a single first-floor apartment to ignite the entire third-floor hallway.

"All the chiefs said they'd never seen a fire like this," said Milburn, the department spokesman.

In the first two hours, some firefighters consumed five tanks of air each as they fought their way into the smoke-choked building to rescue residents, said Wills, the arson investigator. The tanks are meant to last 30 minutes each.

Wills traced the fire's path on maps displayed Saturday at the Fire Department's command center in the street outside the building, showing how the blaze leapt from the first floor to the second and then to the third, apparently traveling up stairway shafts.

Four areas on the map -- two on the first floor and two on the third -- were marked "missing door."

The doors might have made a difference in slowing the fire, he said.

"When the doors are on, that prevents heat and fire from moving within the building," he said. But he declined to specify if the missing doors were the kind of fire doors required by law, simply saying they were doors that were missing.

"That's where the fire inspectors will come in, and they will determine what was to code, what wasn't to code. That's where their expertise lies," he said.

The unidentified management spokesman said he was "not aware of any missing doors on that property."

Lerch, the councilman, said he heard from a fire captain that the complex recently passed an inspection, but fire officials said they could not confirm that Saturday.

Hyde, who has lived in the complex since 1994, said yearly fire drills were held when it was an Oakwood rental building. But since the building was sold in the late 1990s, she said, she could recall only one drill. A fire door was missing on her hall, Hyde said.

Some residents who returned briefly to their apartments Saturday said they were surprised and relieved to find them relatively unscathed.

"My apartment is totally fine. I feel great," said Raymond Willis, 38, after emerging with two large bags of belongings. But he said he had delayed getting renters' insurance, "and it came back and bit me." He had spent Friday night at a hotel.

Peter Castillo, 25, returned to his family's unit to retrieve Jake, a black-and-yellow ball python that wrapped itself around Castillo's arm. The family's turtle also survived, but some fish died in the fire, he said.

The Red Cross served hundreds of sandwiches to waiting residents on Saturday.

deborah.schoch@latimes.com

Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.

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