2 dead, 2 hurt in blaze at Boyle Heights auto repair shop

Jaime Buenrostro was in his kitchen after 6 a.m. Monday when he heard the desperate screams from the auto repair building behind his Boyle Heights home. Several people, who reportedly lived inside the business, were trapped.

“It’s burning!” they yelled in Spanish. “Help. Help. Get us out of here!”

He raced to the Whittier Boulevard shop to find it engulfed in smoke. His wife, Ana, called 911 as he and his son-in-law fought to open a sliding gate on the structure’s north end. They doused the gate with water, but it only grew hotter.

“We tried and tried,” Buenrostro said. “But it was locked.”

After a few moments, the screaming stopped.

More than 100 firefighters responded to the blaze at 6:30. They found five people who had escaped the building trapped in the parking lot behind the locked, 8-foot gate. Two people were found dead inside the building. Their ages and identities were not immediately available.

A 61-year-old man was taken to County- USC Medical Center in critical condition, with burns over 40% of his body. A 33-year-old man was also burned on the shoulders and arms.

Two German shepherds that guarded the property also died in the blaze.

Witnesses told police that eight to 11 people lived inside the business, known as Gamez Auto Center. Some possibly paid rent to the owner to stay at the property.

“It’s uncommon for that many people to be inside of a business that early, before it’s opened,” said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Jaime Moore. “So what people are saying is most likely true, but we have not confirmed it yet.

Moore said the fire was under investigation, and it was too soon to determine the cause.

The building, at 3575 Whittier Blvd., backs up on a residential block.

Owner Faustino Gamez, who rushed home from a trip to Mexico on Thursday morning, said no one lived on the property.

The 61-year-old man who was hospitalized guarded the site overnight, Gamez said, but he had a hard time keeping out trespassers, who often jumped the gate and climbed down from a hole in the roof.

Gamez also said he suspected that workers lingered in the building overnight after partying and drinking.

“I guess they figured they were free to do what they wanted since I was gone,” he said.

But some tenants who rented space on the property to do auto repair work said people regularly slept there.

Several people showed up to work unaware that a blaze had destroyed the building. As firefighters and police milled about the blackened, gutted building filled with scorched cars, Pedro Zamora and others waited solemnly behind yellow tape.

“I repeatedly told them it wasn’t safe for people to stay there,” said Zamora, who fixed transmissions at the shop. “I thought of reporting it to the police, but I didn’t want trouble.”

Zamora, 40, said he lost 20 years’ worth of tools and materials in the blaze. He said he did not have insurance and had no idea how he would rebuild his business.

Another tenant, Hugo Avalos, 33, said he lost five cars, four belonging to clients. He said he believed a young man named Gilbert, who worked for him and regularly slept at the site, was among the dead.

“He was serious and quiet and very hardworking,” Avalos said.

Authorities said those trapped in the building tried to battle the flames with a garden hose rather than call authorities. The building was made of concrete and laminate. Petroleum and stacks of tires stored on the roof fed the fire, Moore said.

People living nearby, who spilled out of their homes in pajamas when they smelled smoke, said flames nearly reached power lines. No one at the scene appeared to know the victims. They said the building was quiet night after night.

“It’s sad,” said Luis Trejo, 35, who lives around the corner from the auto center. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw the flames this morning.”