The firefighters snapped out of bed at 4:20 a.m. As they sped to the Walnut Avenue home in Montebello, they saw a column of smoke surging skyward above an orange glow in the early morning darkness.
"You get excited inside," firefighter Marc Valentine said. "You're going to fight fire. It's not just another false alarm."
Then came word that two people were trapped inside the house. "My first reaction was no big deal," Valentine said. "Almost always there's nobody there. It's just people scared (that) there may be someone there."
But Valentine and the other rescue workers will never forget what they encountered the morning of Jan. 24. One firefighter is still seeing a psychologist to help him cope with his memories of the worst fire in Montebello history, one that killed a young woman and five children.
Firefighters Valentine, Steve Waroff and Joe Giron, and police officer Michael Ortiz, will receive the city's medal of valor at Monday night's City Council meeting for their roles in fighting fire and tragedy that fateful morning.
The four heroes say they were just doing their job, a frightful job they wish had ended differently.
A smoldering cigarette started the fire at the residence of Joseph and Gloria Medina shortly after a family birthday and baptismal party had ended. It quickly became an inferno.
Ortiz was one of the first to arrive and probably saved Joseph Medina's life.
"He tried to go through the front door," Ortiz said. "Luckily, I caught him just inside, before he was burned too badly. I dragged him out. He was trying intensely to save his kids."
Valentine and Waroff, who are also paramedics, went farther inside the house. The smoke was heavy as they searched a bedroom on hands and knees.
"I got to the crib and didn't find anything," Valentine said. "We found the first one on the floor."
Waroff found another child in a second bedroom and carried the body out. As Waroff performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on one of the children, Valentine quickly went back inside with Capt. Orville Reed to search the bedroom again.
"They had all sorts of toys and dolls, Cabbage Patch dolls, and all these dolls are the same size as that first child," Valentine said. "(I) was trying to make the determination, 'Is this a doll or is this a real person?' "
Reed found a third child. Valentine made his way onto two beds that had been pushed together and fanned his arms and legs to cover as much space as quickly as possible.
"All this time (I was) going through the dolls . . . and then I grabbed another kid," Valentine said. "When I got to the fourth one I said, 'This has got to stop.' Every time I'd pass a kid out you'd hear, 'Not another one.' "
But it still wasn't over.
"Everybody was working on kids," Giron recalled. "Somebody said there were more kids in there."
"Then came another, until they were lined up like cord wood," said Waroff, a father of two. "Everybody was trying so hard . . . but we weren't getting results."
Firefighters pulled out a fifth child. Then Giron found the sixth victim, Aida Borunda, 18, Gloria Medina's daughter by a previous marriage.
"I think her reaction (had been that) she was going to save her sisters," Giron said. "I remember picking her up. She was no heavier than my daughter."
Outside, the victims were lined up as rescue workers tried to breathe life into them.
"It was like a dream," Giron said. "No matter what you did, it didn't make a difference. You got thousands of dollars worth of equipment and training, and nothing you can do makes any difference."
The Medinas lost four children--Borunda, Danielle, 9, Racquel, 6, and Joi, 5. The two other victims were family friends Mandie Lopez, 10, and Racquel Lopez, 7. All died of smoke inhalation.
Fire inspectors later found that a smoke detector was in the house but had not been installed.
Jacob, 1, the Medinas' youngest child and the reason for the family celebration, had been taken to his grandmother's house hours before the party ended.
Joseph and Gloria Medina were treated for smoke inhalation and minor burns.
Shortly after the fire, a psychologist met with the more than 20 rescue workers who were at the blaze.
"I don't think there's a firefighter who doesn't remember every fire death, but when it's a child, it's twice as bad," Fire Chief Robert J. King said. "When it affects children, when firefighters go into the fire, they're saving their own children."
Giron, 31, said he wept when he heard news reports after the tragedy. He has two children, ages 12 and 8.
"I remember hugging the kids and going through a fire drill with them," Giron said.
Valentine, 28, was haunted by "the feeling of grabbing dolls and not knowing if they were real people."
He has adopted this attitude about Jan. 24: "I'm there to do my best to save life. I feel great when I can be the one to do what I can do to bring them back."
Waroff, 41, has taken it the hardest. The child he tried to revive died two days later at an area hospital.
"As long as she was alive, I still had this feeling I had accomplished something. When she died, that's when my depression set in."
Waroff was out checking fire hydrants the day after the children's funeral, when he passed the charred house and saw family members removing belongings. Waroff is president of the Montebello Firemen's Assn., which set up a fund that has raised more than $22,000 for the two families that lost children.
"It was that night while on duty that it hit me and I broke down," Waroff said.