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Pasadena Fire : Victims Left With Only Piles of Junk

September 17, 1987|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — Jill Crane stood before a house-sized pile of charred wood and steel and looked hopelessly on the scattered bits and pieces of her life.

Buried beneath piles of burned ceiling beams were the remains of what she and others in her apartment building owned. Now, the only things left were scorched scraps of junk that reeked of smoke and mud.

"It's been a nightmare . . . my life and all my memories up in flames," said Crane, who fire officials say caused the fire by leaving a candle burning in her bathroom.

"I feel like hell, it's unbearable," she said Tuesday.

120 Left Homeless

In one of the worst fires in the city's history, a 44-unit apartment building on the corner of Del Mar Boulevard and Marengo Avenue was burned Monday in a fast-moving blaze that left 120 people homeless.

No one was injured, but few were able to flee the building in the dark hours of the morning with much more than the clothes on their backs and perhaps a purse or wallet.

"I came out of my apartment with my sweat pants, my purse and my kids," said Kim Haley, whose third-floor apartment was destroyed. "I've got nothing left."

Haley, along with about 30 others who had no other place to go, are staying at the Red Cross disaster center set up in the basement of the Exhibition Hall at the Pasadena Convention Center.

She has begun looking for a new home. But she said it will take more than new housing to recover from the loss of all her possessions.

'It's All Gone Now'

"I've had to start all over again a few times because of bad relationships, but I've always been able to hang on to the most important things, like baby books and pictures," said Haley, the mother of three. "I don't have a lot, but it's all gone now."

The fire, which caused nearly $1 million in damage, broke out at 4 a.m., said Fire Department Battalion Chief L. W. Barker.

Crane said she had lit the candle in the bathroom because the light switch was broken, and forgot to extinguish it before she went to sleep.

About two hours later, she was awakened by a crackling sound and a bright red glow coming from under the bathroom door.

Crane opened the door, apparently causing the fire to flash. "The whole room was solid flames," she said.

A friend of Crane's, David Kitch, said he ran from her fourth-floor apartment down to the third floor to call the Fire Department, and then ran back to Crane's apartment with a fire extinguisher.

"It was like pouring a glass of water on a forest fire," he said. "When the fire started falling from the ceiling onto the carpet, then I said, 'To hell with it.' "

One floor below Crane's apartment, Jonathan Silverstein was awakened when he heard Kitch running down the stairs and yelling for a phone.

There was a knock on his front door and by the time he opened it and looked into the hallway he could see flames flickering at the top of a third-floor window.

Silverstein, his wife, Venessa, and their 2-month-old baby fled with the clothes they were wearing and a wallet.

Flames Engulf Floor

From the street, Venessa Silverstein said she looked back and saw their floor engulfed in flames.

"If that man hadn't knocked on our door, we wouldn't have made it," she said.

Members of the Fire Department reached the building shortly after the fire broke out and there were soon about 80 firefighters from Pasadena and Glendale on the scene, Barker said. The fire was under control about 7:40 a.m., he said.

"It was a big one," Barker said. "We feel good we got everybody out safely."

Fire investigator Jerry Fink said the investigation into the cause of the fire has been closed. Fire Department spokesman Don Hugh said, "It's pretty clear it was accidental."

Fink said that the building, owned by Pasadena real estate investor Norman A. Furman, had passed its most recent fire inspection last year.

In the aftermath of the fire, some residents are bitter about Crane's carelessness.

Reluctant to Assess Blame

But Silverstein, like others, was reluctant to blame anyone.

"The temptation is to get very angry," he said. "But we're not trying to point any fingers. That person lost everything too."

The Red Cross Disaster Center set up cots and chairs at Exhibition Hall, two blocks from the apartment building.

Baenen said 68 people used the facility Monday and about 30 stayed there the first night.

Molly Lopez, who lives in a bungalow next door to the apartment building and who also was evacuated, said that although her home was not destroyed, she was distraught over the confusion the fire has caused in her life.

"It's an awful feeling," she said. "You don't know what is going to happen moment to moment. The waiting has been tough."

Nearby, on a message board set up at the disaster center, the signs of worry and confusion stared out at the quiet group of tenants.

"Please call your mom," one note said. "Please contact Freta. I'm worried about you," another said.

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