Catalina Martinez's 10-year-old daughter bravely guided her three younger siblings out of danger when fire and smoke engulfed their second-floor apartment in the Westlake district two weeks ago, killing 10 people and injuring 40 others. But these days, Martinez says, the girl suffers from mysterious high fevers and severe melancholy.
"She was always very happy," Martinez said at a meeting of Westlake fire victims Sunday afternoon at LaFayette Park. "Now, she's very sad. She's not the way she used to be."
The Martinez family has settled into a new apartment. But like dozens of families whose lives are beginning to return to normal, things will never be the same for them.
Many families lost loved ones. Others lost personal belongings.
Although the Red Cross is helping some residents pay their first month's rent and deposit on a new apartment, many are having to pay more rent than they were in their former building. Martinez shared a two-bedroom apartment with her four children and nine others. But unable to find a place that would let them all stay together, she and her children are living with just four others in another two-bedroom Westlake apartment, west of downtown.
"It's very expensive," said Martinez worriedly. "It's very difficult to pay the rent."
All the families displaced by the fire have found permanent or temporary housing, said Red Cross spokesperson Peggy McGinley. The charity's shelter at Belmont High School closed Wednesday.
The fire began in a second-floor apartment at 330 S. Burlington Ave. on May 3. Many of the fire doors were nailed open, investigators found, causing thick smoke to spread quickly through the second-floor hallway and up to the third floor. Dozens of residents jumped out windows and hurried down ladders. Many of those, including two pregnant women who tried to escape through the stairwells, suffocated from the smoke.
The building had been cited a month before for fire code violations similar to the ones blamed for the rapid spread of fire and smoke. The owners were ordered in April to place a 24-hour fire watch on the building until the defects were corrected. Building managers said no such fire watch was established.
On Sunday, attorney Elva Gonzales Funes, who is representing 61 families and organized the meeting, said she is considering filing suit against the building owner and called for tougher fire compliance laws.
She suggested that after a building receives two citations for serious fire code violations, its tenants be allowed to pay their rent to the Fire Department so that the money can be used for repairs.
The city is considering filing criminal charges against the building owner.