Tragedy illustrates need for fire safety

Times Staff Writer

To stress the importance of home safety during the holiday season, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Friday visited the charred remains of Russell Sittig's two-bedroom home in Leimert Park.

It was early Tuesday when tragedy struck. A sofa, too close to a space heater, caught fire, ignited a Christmas tree and left the 68-year-old Sittig struggling to get his wife, who uses a wheelchair, and 11 children and grandchildren out of the burning house.

"So many of us spending time with our families and loved ones hear terrible tragedies which are often preventable," said Villaraigosa, standing outside the house. "We are here to address the life-and-death issues of fire safety which can make a difference between a happy holiday season and a tragic one."

Firefighters found Sittig badly burned and unconscious when they broke into his house on West 41st Street. His wife, Evelyn, was slumped in her wheelchair. Ten-year-old Amanda Sittig had no pulse, and her sister Shannon, 9, who jumped out a window, had burns on her hands and arms. Others got out with minor or no injuries, officials said. Sittig, his wife and two granddaughters remain in critical condition.

There were no smoke detectors in the house to warn the sleeping family members of the fire. Sittig and his wife, both hearing impaired, would have needed special smoke alarms. Firefighters trying to rescue family members had to cut through a steel gate, only to discover that the front and rear doors were shut with double-key deadbolt locks, officials said.

Acting Fire Chief Douglas Barry, who appeared with Villaraigosa, said that smoke detectors should be regularly tested and that families should plan and practice methods of escaping from a burning home. Only approved heating devices should be used, and they shouldn't be placed in cramped areas, he said.

Villaraigosa said four people have been killed and 13 injured -- including five firefighters -- in seven fires since Dec. 20.

"It is clear we have to do a lot more education on this issue," Villaraigosa said.

The Los Angeles Fire Department donated clothes, stuffed animals, a Sony Playstation and a television to the family. Washington Mutual Bank established a benevolent fund for the family in the name of Reitha Thomas, Sittig's daughter.

Outside the house, Sean Baker, a spokesman for the family, thanked the community for their support, especially the firefighters who risked their lives to save his family members.

"Our family is forever grateful for your heroism," he said. "It is a very painful time."

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