As word spread that a Latino toddler had become the fifth victim of an arson blaze at the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, some Latino residents demanded Monday that segregated buildings be set aside for them within the predominantly African-American complex.
Standing in front of the charred apartment, Alma Ortega acknowledged that such a move might exacerbate racial tensions between her and her black neighbors. But Ortega, who has lived at Jordan Downs for 1 1/2 years, contended it is the only way for Latinos to feel comfortable in the wake of Saturday's pre-dawn fire.
"They're going to think we're racists," Ortega said. "But we never do anything to defend ourselves . . . there's so few of us here. Maybe we would be better apart."
Latino neighbors said the people who perished in the blaze--set by two black suspects, according to an eyewitness account detailed by police Monday--had asked several weeks ago to be moved to another housing project. They said the family had clashed with drug dealers and feared the consequences of remaining in their apartment.
"Now they're dead," said Marisela Ruiz, who has lived at the project for two years. "Is it now that they're finally going to move them?"
The women said they planned to seek support at a meeting scheduled for today with Los Angeles Housing Authority officials. It was unclear how many others shared their sentiments in the 2,500-person project, which is about 20% Latino and 80% African-American. Calls to the Housing Authority headquarters in Los Angeles were not answered.
The death Monday of 1-year-old Veronica Lopez added to the racial tensions that have run high since fire ripped through the gray and blue two-story unit on 102nd Street.
The toddler, who would have been 2 later this month, clung to life for nearly 48 hours--partly because of the heroics of her 78-year-old great-grandmother, who placed the child between her legs and hunched over to shield her from the 1,200-degree flames, officials said.
The fire also killed the great-grandmother, Margarita Hernandez, as well as Veronica's mother, Martha Zuniga, 22; her brother Juan Carlos, 5, and her sister, Claudia, 4. All five had come from Mexico City at the beginning of the year to see what life in the United State held for them.
"They came to find a new life, but instead they found death," Martha's 23-year-old sister, Maria, said Monday. "They're going to return in a box."
The survivors have been receiving food and shelter at an undisclosed hotel from Red Cross officials, who said 22 people from four families were displaced by the fire. According to Housing Authority officials, the three-bedroom unit has a maximum occupancy of six.
In the confusion of the blaze, the family patriarch, 65-year-old Juan Zuniga--who was in intensive care Monday, breathing with the help of a ventilator--allegedly fired a shot from a handgun into the chest of 34-year-old Gregory Moore.
He apparently believed Moore, who is black, was one of the arsonists, Los Angeles police said. But detectives are now convinced that Moore--who remained in serious but stable condition Monday--was merely a friendly neighbor who had rushed to the apartment to try to rescue the family.
After interviewing Moore at his bed in Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, officers also said they believe he may be the only eyewitness to the fatal events that occurred outside his apartment window early Saturday morning.
"Between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. he looked out his window and saw two black males standing in a parking lot next to (the victim's apartment)," said Lt. Helen Kidder of the Los Angeles Police Department's criminal conspiracy section. "One of the males was carrying a gas can. Seconds later, Moore saw smoke coming from the roof.
"He yelled at the black males and they ran eastward. Moore ran to . . . help the victims inside. A woman opened the door for him to enter the residence. But during the confusion surrounding the incident, his neighbor, Juan Zuniga, accidentally shot him."
The family apparently had been upset with drug dealing and other neighborhood problems outside their home, police said, and Zuniga mistakenly took Moore for someone who intended to hurt them.
"Moore was merely trying to help out," Kidder said. "And I'm sure in all the confusion in Mr. Zuniga's mind, he didn't have any idea who it was. He probably was just instinctively trying to protect himself and his family."