Investigators suspect arson in an early-morning blaze Sunday that killed a 2-year-old girl after she apparently crawled from her burning bed in a closet to avoid the advancing flames, authorities said Sunday.
The child's mother, her boyfriend and another toddler that they were baby-sitting were seriously injured in the 5:30 a.m. fire that gutted the family's two-room apartment in an older brick building at 90 S. Laurel St. near downtown Ventura.
Sarah Galka died inside the building, despite numerous attempts by neighbors and passersby to rescue her through the second-story window. The only door to the apartment was blocked by fire.
Barry Simmons, a Ventura City Fire Department spokesman, said investigators had no suspects Sunday, but would continue to interview witnesses and investigate the fire this week. "If it's arson, obviously that leads to murder," Simmons said.
Sarah's mother, Laney Galka, was in serious condition at Ventura County Medical Center Sunday evening. Galka's live-in companion, Arthur Tyrone Finnegan, was in stable condition at the same hospital, a nursing supervisor said.
Cynthia Anderson, 20 months, was in serious condition at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles.
Sunday's fire shocked Sarah's family. "She was the sweetest little thing, so smart and good. And this had to happen to her," said Ellie Montgomery of Ventura, the girl's great-grandmother.
Sarah's father, Patrick De Ruchie, 26, had been sedated by a doctor and could not comment, Montgomery said. "He was a madman this morning when he heard," she said.
Witnesses and neighbors said they told police that they believed the fire might have been an act of vengeance over a drug deal gone sour. But police and fire investigators would confirm only that arson was suspected.
"It appears at this time that the fire was deliberately set," said Capt. Glenn True, senior investigator with the Ventura City Fire Department. A fire detection dog trained to sniff out flammable liquid located some material that was sent to a laboratory for analysis, True said.
True said he believed that the fire was set between 5:20 and 5:30 a.m. on the second-floor landing at the top of the stairway. He said the position of a chair in the hallway and other facts that he would not disclose led him to suspect arson.
The fire traveled several feet across the stairway entrance and down the hallway before it entered Galka's apartment through a window facing the hallway. The window led to a closet that was converted to a child's room, where investigators believe that Sarah was sleeping. Remains of the single mattress in the closet were covered with dark soot and charred pieces of children's toys and clothes.
Sarah's body was found about 12 feet away from the bed, near another window facing Laurel Street.
Simmons was unsure how the girl's mother got to safety. But neighbors said she may have climbed down a ladder extended to the window by passersby. Finnegan told firefighters that he jumped, holding Cynthia, from the second floor of the apartment. But Simmons said neighbors also claimed to have carried the child down a ladder.
"We can't explain the difference in the stories," Simmons said.
Neighbor Ray Roberson said he and his housemates rushed outside when they heard all the noise. "Everyone was screaming, 'Get the baby, get the baby!' " he said. Rescuers draped towels and coats around their heads for protection trying to enter the window, he said. But no one could get past the smoke and flames.
Times staff writer Gary Gorman contributed to this report.