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Fire deaths shock deaf community

Times Staff Writer

When the pre-dawn fire began roaring through Alex and Yandiri Valencia’s tidy Moreno Valley mobile home Sunday, the thundering noise jolted their neighbors out of bed. But all three people inside the house were deaf, and two kept on sleeping, oblivious to the flames.

Alex Valencia, who had fallen asleep watching television on the living room couch, woke up as the fire scorched his feet and rushed outside, friends said.

Neighbor Kathy Riddle found him pacing the street in horror as the flames swept toward the back bedroom, where his 21-year-old wife and her friend slept.

He had rushed to warn his wife and her friend, Melissa “Missy” Phoenix, but the bedroom door had melted. He escaped through a vent and ran to the back of the home, smashing a window in a vain attempt to wake his wife, said his friend Jeannine De Loye.

The neighbors who filled the street never heard an alarm, and fire officials believe the Valencias’ home wasn’t equipped either with regular smoke alarms or alarms for the deaf that set off strobe lights or shake their beds.

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When Alex Valencia saw Riddle standing on her porch, he made the shape of a phone with his hand and raised it to his ear -- pleading with her to call 911.

She already had, but it was too late. By the time firefighters arrived, both women had died of smoke inhalation and burns. Fire officials believe a candle left burning on top of the television ignited the blaze.

“There’s constant tragedy with the deaf that is avoidable,” said De Loye, who had become close friends with the Valencias through her husband, who is deaf. “We’ve come such a long way just in this century. . . . But they were asleep, so the Sidekicks and the computers burned up. . . . It was up to the neighbors to call 911.”

Neighbors and friends confirmed the deaths of the two women, but official confirmation has not been made by the Riverside County coroner’s office.

News of the tragedy filtered quickly through the close-knit staff and student body of the California School for the Deaf in Riverside, where both women were former students.

The school immediately called in counselors because so many students and teachers knew the women. Yandiri Valencia, a volleyball and basketball player, boarded on campus after moving here from Acapulco. She graduated in 2004. Phoenix, a cheerleader and class vice president, graduated in 1994.

Laurie Pietro, the school’s head of community affairs, said students always “eventually come back here” and retain their ties to the school’s network.

“This is where they feel like a family,” she said.

It was through the school’s nuclear community that Alex and Yandiri Valencia met, while he was working as a student aide in the special-needs division, De Loye said.

“This was her first love. He was older and their relationship, it made you want to be all giddy and cute the way they were,” De Loye said. “I know there was 10 years difference between them, but he was young at heart and she was very responsible. So they were a really good balance.”

Yandiri Valencia, who was known as Ruby, was always inviting friends to stay at their home, including Phoenix, whom De Loye described as one of the most outgoing people she had ever met.

“She was so friendly, it didn’t matter if you were deaf or hearing,” De Loye said. “She talked to everyone.”

Neighbors said the couple’s home at the Sky Trails Mobile Village was often the gathering place for deaf friends from school and the various churches they attended.

Yandiri Valencia spoke to neighbors through hugs and waves, or made a sign of the cross that they interpreted as her daily “God bless you.”

Several neighbors said the Valencias often scribbled notes to share their news or ask for help. They wrote that they’d gotten engaged, for instance, and to get a hand in coaxing a new litter of kittens out from underneath their trailer.

Next-door neighbor Jola Smith saved her stack of notes.

“It was our only communication,” Smith said as she sat on the steps of her trailer next to the burned shell of the Valencias’ home Monday. “We would just write notes and smile and give a hug when needed. . . . They were trying to teach me sign language.”

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maeve.reston@latimes.com


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