"If they hadn't come out alive, I would have heard those screams the rest of my life."
Dedan Gills was still shaking a bit, remembering the cries for help from the seven children in a burning house in South-Central Los Angeles early Saturday morning. The children were trapped--flames and smoke billowing toward them from the kitchen and iron security bars blocking their only escape route, a pair of windows in a back bedroom where they huddled in fear.
Gills had just returned from visiting friends when he heard the screams coming from across the street in the 400 block of East 111th St. With a friend, he rushed to the back of the house where he used his hands and a two-by-four to bend the security bars and pull all seven children to safety. An unidentified man who was staying at the house also escaped through the window.
Firefighters acknowledge that without Gills' quick response, Saturday's close call might have become the second tragedy this month involving young children and window security bars.
"Circumstances might have been different if Mr. Gills had not been there in time to bend the bars and lead them to safety," said Los Angeles City Fire Department spokesman Greg Acevedo.
On June 6, less than two miles from Saturday's incident, three youngsters died in their grandparents' home on 113th Street as neighbors desperately yanked at the bars trapping them in a fire-filled bedroom.
"As I pryed those bars, all I could think of was those three children," said Gills, a 40-year-old independent auto salesman. "I was damned determined seven more weren't going to die."
The children, ages 8 to 14, escaped serious injury, although several suffered minor bruises and cuts as they scrambled to safety through the bedroom window, Acevedo said.
The fire apparently started in the kitchen when fumes from a small can of gasoline came in contact with a pilot light on a water heater or stove and ignited, triggering a minor explosion. While firefighters contained the blaze to the kitchen, smoke damage to the three-bedroom house was extensive with the total damage estimated at $40,000.
The house is occupied by Janet Brown and her two children, Latricia, 14, and Arthur, 11. The others in the house were cousins or friends of her children who were invited to spend the night. Shortly before 4:30 a.m., Brown said she went to the store to "get some breakfast things," and when she returned, the kitchen was burning and Gills was out back.
"I couldn't believe it," said Brown, tears in her eyes. "I was only gone for a few minutes."
Fire officials said the kitchen explosion awoke the children and a friend of Brown's who was watching the youngsters while Brown was away. Because the smoke was so thick in the front of the house, Latricia hustled the children into Arthur's room where they punched the glass out of the windows for air. But she forgot to flip the quick-release latches to open the security bars.
In compliance with a city ordinance, all the window bars on the house are equipped with quick-release latches in case of an emergency, Acevedo said.
Brown said her children had been taught how to use the quick-release levers. But, "they apparently forgot in the confusion. They were screaming and crying and shouting. It was a mess. I'm just thankful they're all alive."
Brown's brother, Dennis, a Compton minister, agreed:
"Thank goodness, miracles still happen."