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Rescuers in East Valley Fires Shrug Off Survivors' Praise

February 02, 1996|JOHN JOHNSON and LISA LEFF | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

VAN NUYS — Heroes come in all types, but they often share one thing--they don't think they are heroes at all.

That was the case in two residential fires Thursday in the east San Fernando Valley in which ordinary people responded in extraordinary ways to save others.

In one case, a neighbor caught four people, including a pregnant woman, who leaped from a burning second-story apartment in Van Nuys.

In the second incident, a woman ran into a burning house in Mission Hills and dragged out an 80-year-old woman who was reluctant to leave her cats.

The man who caught three small children and the pregnant woman trapped in an apartment on Buffalo Avenue said it was no big deal. Those who were rescued couldn't disagree more.

"No words can explain it," said Tonya Coffee, 23, who dropped her two children into the arms of the neighbor, then jumped herself. "I just want to thank him, because our kids could be gone." The neighbor was identified by the Los Angeles Fire Department as Marcus Bryar.

"He was like, 'Anybody would have done it, it's no big deal.' It is a big deal," said Erin Allmond, 20, who was staying in the apartment with Coffee and her children. Allmond, who had moved in five days earlier, had disconnected the smoke alarm only hours before because it kept going off for no reason.

Fire Department Battalion Chief Rod Wilmot said Bryar, who did not answer his door Thursday afternoon, took a chance with his own safety, especially catching Coffee, who is one month pregnant.

"I'll probably write a letter [to department supervisors] asking that we recognize him in some fashion," Wilmot said.

Wilmot said the fire started in an adjoining apartment in the four-unit building about 3:30 a.m. The residents fled without alerting Coffee and Allmond next door, said Wilmot, who listed the fire as suspicious.

Allmond said she was awakened by the sound of running feet in the stairwell between the two upstairs apartments. She got up and opened the front door. Flames came rushing in and she shut the door and retreated.

By this time, Coffee and a cousin of Allmond's, Nicole Stevenson, 17, had both awakened. Bryar appeared under the window and began shouting for the women to get the children out.

Coffee dropped her son, Tyrrus, 4, and her daughter, Quiana Pratt, 2, to Bryar 15 feet below. Then Allmond dropped her daughter, Ariana Flores, 1, to Bryar.

But after Coffee jumped into Bryar's arms, Allmond refused to follow. She is afraid of heights. She went back to the front door, opened it and watched the flames roar in and lick the ceiling. Finally, she and her cousin, Nicole, dove under the flames and ran down the stairs. Neither was burned.

The Fire Department estimated the damage at $30,000.

The children were playing peacefully nearby Thursday afternoon, but Coffee said the narrow escape had affected them. "My son was shaking" afterward, she said.

Allmond, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Sacramento, said she is fed up. "If it's not gang violence, it's killing," she said. "If it's not killing, it's fire. I'm ready to leave."

About six hours later, a fire started by an electric heater badly burned a house at 9816 Kester Ave., Mission Hills, which was occupied by Marina Harris, 80, and her two cats.

Preston Brown, 38, was sitting down the block in his sanitation truck talking with another trash truck operator, Ricardo Alvarado, when the men saw the flames erupting from the frame house. Brown leaped out and ran down the street to help.

Brown said Alvarado grabbed a fire extinguisher from a neighbor and broke a window, cutting his finger, while Brown grabbed a garden hose and tried to fight the fire.

At that point, Maria Carvajal, 32, a neighbor, went into the burning house, searching for Harris. "I'm looking for her," Carvajal said. "There was much smoke. I couldn't see her. Thank God she had on a white blouse."

Carvajal found Harris in her bedroom, frightened and disoriented.

"I said, 'Come on Mary, let's get out of here. We have to go. Your house is burning. If we don't go, we could die,' " Carvajal said.

She grabbed Harris and pulled her out the front door. Distraught with fear that her cats would not get out alive, Harris struggled to go back inside, only to be restrained by Carvajal.

In the aftermath of the fire, Harris, a silver-haired woman in a white shawl, sat hugging Carvajal and sobbing. "Mary, I love you. Thanks for helping me," she cried.

The American Red Cross announced later Thursday evening that it would assist Harris with food and clothing while she recovers from the tragedy. Harris' live-in nephew recently died, and she had no fire insurance on the house.

Carvajal didn't seem to think she had done much for her friend. She was more concerned about Harris. "How do you feel?" she asked. Harris put her head on the younger woman's shoulder.

"Lousy."

But her cats survived.

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