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3 Members of Family Die in Fire

Tragedy: Blaze in converted garage in Sun Valley kills grandmother and two of her granddaughters.

March 20, 1997|JILL LEOVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SUN VALLEY — A woman and two of her granddaughters died early Wednesday in a fire that swept through an apartment in what officials said was an illegally converted garage.

Maria Magdalena Gonzales, 44; Joanne Lizette Paz, 7; and Janessa Naomi Paz, who was almost 3, died despite frantic efforts by the children's father and a neighbor to save them. Relatives said the three were sleeping in a bedroom with no windows, which may have delayed their escape.

"I saw the grandmother through the window standing in the living room saying, 'Help! Help!' She panicked. She froze. . . . We couldn't do anything," said neighbor Rick Martinez, 28, who tried to douse the flames with a garden hose.

The children's father, Manuel Paz, 28, had escaped with his wife, Lourdes, 28, and year-old daughter, Gabriela, but was driven back by flames when he returned to try to rescue his mother-in-law and other daughters, Martinez said.

It was the second time in four months that an illegal garage dwelling was the scene of a deadly fire.

Five children died in December in a fire in an illegally converted garage in Watts. There are estimated to be thousands of illegal garage dwellings throughout Los Angeles, although the city prosecutes only about 50 such cases in the San Fernando Valley each year.

Arson investigators and Principal City Building Inspector David R. Keim are investigating Wednesday's fire at 8818 Ilex Ave.

"This garage was illegally converted to a dwelling unit without a permit," Keim said. "A lot of work has been done on the rear of the building without a permit. A permit is insurance--insurance that the work is legal, and more important, safe."

In this case, the garage had been remodeled into an apartment with two bedrooms, one without windows--a clear and dangerous violation of the city building code, Keim said. That bedroom was the one that Gonzalez and the girls slept in, according to relatives.

Neighbors said garages converted to dwellings are common in the neighborhood, renting for as little as $350 per month.

The flames ended Gonzalez's lifetime effort to improve her lot and that of her granddaughters.

Relatives and neighbors described the family as devout Jehovah's Witnesses, and Gonzalez herself as a determined woman who had left Culiacan, Mexico, taught herself English, and built her own clothing-making business, only to lose it to bankruptcy.

"She struggled her whole life--struggled and suffered," said her sister, Blanca Alicia Berrelleza, 47, speaking in Spanish.

Berrelleza said Gonzalez, the third of nine children, had weathered the loss of her husband and the bankruptcy of her business in recent years, events which prompted her to seek refuge in the Jehovah's Witness faith, converting from her family's Catholicism.

Throughout her life she had kept a lively sense of humor and a strong desire to advance.

"Once she had an idea, she would do it," Berrelleza said, her eyes brimming. "She had an obsession: To move forward. She wanted a good future for her granddaughters.

"This is a nightmare."

Neighbor Martinez, who said his father owns the garage apartment, said Manuel Paz told him that the fire started in extension cords used to power the television set and video recorder and quickly swept through the garage interior.

Martinez said the fire that broke out shortly after 1 a.m. caught the family asleep. The girls' parents ran outside through the flames in the living room, and Manual Paz immediately turned to go back in, but it was too late, Martinez said.

Little Joanne stumbled as she tried to run out of the living room, they said. Gonzalez stood in the living room with Janessa, crying for help as she was consumed by the flames, Martinez said.

"It's hard to see someone in flames, asking for help and you can't do anything," he said. The garden hoses they were using to spray the fire seemed to have no effect.

Gerardo Suarez, 21, nephew of Manual Paz, said Paz was driven outside because he could not breathe in the smoke, intending to return for the others after he filled his lungs with air, but the flames engulfed the building faster than he anticipated.

Firefighters tried to revive Janessa, who had been handed through a broken window--it was not clear by whom--but were unsuccessful. They extinguished the blaze in about 22 minutes, said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Alan Masumoto.

Berrelleza said Gonzalez usually slept with the two older girls in the bedroom without windows, while Manuel and Lourdes slept with the toddler, Gabriela, in the other room.

Keim, the building inspector, said the original house and garage had been built in 1941. The garage was expanded in 1949. In 1975, the owners obtained a permit to convert it to a recreation room. But the permit did not allow a kitchen, nor did it allow the garage to be used as a dwelling.

Martinez declined to speak in detail about the arrangement. But he denied that the dwelling was illegal.

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