A 5-year-old boy was killed and his 2-year-old sister and 22-year-old baby-sitter injured when a tinder-dry Christmas tree exploded into flames, sending fire rushing through a Sherman Oaks apartment, authorities said Saturday.
The girl, Rebecca Kopulsky, was rescued from the crib where she lay sleeping by the assistant manager of the apartment complex, who climbed through a window of the ground-level apartment--braving thick, choking black smoke--to reach her bedroom during the late Friday night fire, witnesses said.
Benjamin Kopulsky, a kindergartner who was described by one devastated neighbor as a "beautiful, gorgeous boy," was separated from his baby-sitter, Michelle Spector, apparently as she went to the bedroom to try to rescue his sister, witnesses said. After she lost track of the boy, she fled from the apartment without either child, they said.
"She had Ben by the hand, and she went to go get the baby, and Ben let go, and ran to the front door," said Linda Moeller, who lives upstairs from the Kopulskys, and whose apartment was also gutted by flames. "She couldn't find him, and she got disoriented."
Jerry Hockman, the 64-year-old assistant apartment manager, said when he realized there was someone still inside, he tried to enter the front door of the apartment but was prevented by the fire. Instead, he said, he ran around to the back bedroom, where he kicked in the window.
Hockman said he couldn't see much through the smoke. But he felt his way to the crib where Rebecca lay unconscious, picked her up and passed her out of the window to a waiting neighbor before he stumbled out of the window to safety.
Benjamin's body was found behind the front door, neighbors said. Rebecca Kopulsky and Spector were both hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
The little girl was in stable condition Saturday night in the pediatric intensive-care ward of Valley Presbyterian Hospital. Spector was released Saturday from Sherman Oaks Community Hospital.
About 40 firefighters responded to the blaze, which was reported at 10:53 p.m. Friday.
Fire officials estimated that the damage to the contents and structure of the two apartments was $100,000. The cause of the blaze remained under investigation Saturday.
Spector, a Cal State Northridge psychology student who lived in the complex, was watching the children while their parents, identified by neighbors as Jack and Kelly Kopulsky, were out to dinner.
Ironically, Spector had expressed concerns about the Christmas tree just moments before the fire broke out, a friend of hers said. "She called me and she said, 'I don't know why they still have this Christmas tree here," recalled Kathy Beekman, who also lives in the complex. After that, Beekman said, Spector said she was going to put Benjamin to bed, and ended the conversation.
Spector's mother and other residents of the complex were not sure how she escaped the inferno. But they said when she got out she was screaming hysterically and pointing to the front door, indicating that someone was still inside.
On Saturday afternoon, neighbors combed through the ashes and the rubble, searching for photos and letters and for clothes that Rebecca and her parents could wear.
Brightly colored toys--plastic cars, trucks and airplanes, a Say 'N Spell, coloring books and board games--provided a tragic contrast to the blackened remains of the gutted apartment.
The parents, who were described by neighbors as "devoted to each other and to the children," learned of their son's death when they arrived home about an hour after the fire. Upon hearing the news from firefighters who were awaiting them, the couple became "hysterical," said neighbors, many of whom were themselves near tears as they recounted the scene.
"They were screaming and holding each other," said Sudi Tehrani, a neighbor whose daughter was in Benjamin's class in school. "This was the happiest family I had ever seen in my life. They adored the children. You have never seen such a family."
Some neighbors said the tragedy could apparently have been averted.
"Why, why the hell didn't they get rid of that tree?" mourned apartment manager Ladd Potisk, who said he plans to visit every unit in the complex to make sure there are no trees left. "If they'd have just gotten rid of that tree, this never would have happened."