INGLEWOOD — When Carmen Gonzales jumped out her second-story window Tuesday morning to escape flames licking at her back, she had only her clothes and a gold pendant she wears for luck.
When she landed, the 19-year-old student broke both her heels.
Behind her, the flames swept through her family's uninsured apartment.
Still, she insists she is blessed.
"I woke up about 8:30 to see what time it was and I heard people yelling and screaming, so I woke up my brothers and nephews," she said Tuesday. "We could have slept through the whole thing, so I don't feel so terrible about losing my house."
'Just Short of a Miracle'
Fire investigators say it was "just short of a miracle" that no one was killed or seriously injured during the blaze that destroyed the two-story apartment building at 3700 Century Blvd., and cost more than 100 people their homes. Damage was estimated at $100,000.
Twenty-five residents, including Gonzales, were treated at hospitals, mostly for broken bones, concussions and cuts they received when they jumped from second-story windows 15 feet above the ground. Three firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion as they battled the blaze in 90-degree weather.
"It looks like this fire just raced through the hallways on the first and second floors," said Terry Schwartz, an arson investigator for the Inglewood Fire Department. "With so many families and small children living in each apartment, it is really a wonder that no one was killed," he said.
Investigators suspect that the fire was started around 8:30 by an arsonist who doused the back stairwell with a flammable liquid and lit it.
Lives Saved by Youth
Carlos Loera, 15, told investigators he walked in the back door just after 8:30, saw the flames and ran through the building knocking on doors and waking up residents.
"A lot of people have Carlos to thank for their lives," Schwartz said.
Victims were taken to a Red Cross emergency shelter a few blocks away at Morningside High
School. They will stay there until they or Red Cross volunteers find housing for them, which could take two weeks or more.
The 26-unit building was condemned, but some residents were allowed to return to salvage what they could.
"When I went back to see the apartment I realized how lucky my family was," said 26-year-old Luis Canales, who was in the shower when the fire broke out. "Maybe it has not hit me yet. I still feel a little pumped up."
Indeed, there was more laughter than tears Tuesday afternoon as residents munched on fried chicken and gathered around salvaged television sets to watch an account of the fire on the evening news.
Excitement Starts to Wane
The excitement seemed to wane a bit, however, as the sun went down, and celebrity status passed with the last newscast. For some, grief started to set in.
One woman broke down when she couldn't find the Rosary her grandmother had given her. A young man walked to the garbage bins to avoid crying in front of his children.
But overall, residents were in relative good cheer.
"After something like this, people are filled with adrenaline," said Edward Hargrave, a Red Cross volunteer. He said it takes 24 to 48 hours for victims to realize their plight.
"Maybe I'll cry later but now I just feel lucky to be alive," Carmen Gonzales said.
In recent months fire inspectors found numerous fire code violations at the building and were considering legal action to force the building's owners, Holly Park Associates, to install secured fire extinguishers and fire doors in the hallways, Fire Marshal Larry Mann said. Some adjacent buildings also owned by Holly Park have just obtained new extinguishers.
Such measures, however, would have done little to contain Tuesday's fire, Schwartz said, because it apparently was ignited with some sort of flammable fluid and spread quickly. No one from Holly Park Associates could be reached for comment.
Nelson Rivas, a resident who broke his arm in a fall, said he has been trying to persuade the owner to install fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, which are not required by law.
"That building was not safe," Rivas said. "There was nothing there for us to protect ourselves from a fire."