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3 Die in Compton Fire as Hydrants Unable to Work

Tragedy: Mobile home fire kills two children and grandmother. Lack of water delayed firefighters.

December 20, 1999|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A woman and two of her grandchildren died early Sunday in a fire in a Compton mobile home park, where firefighters arriving on the scene found the hydrants were useless because they were not hooked up to the city's water main.

Compton officials said Sunday the problems with the hydrants was frustrating to them but did not cost the three victims their lives. They said that rigging up a supply of water from a city water main 1,200 feet away resulted in a delay of about five to nine minutes.

Some residents, however, said that the delay was 20 minutes and that they could hear screams coming from the victims when firefighters arrived.

"The firetrucks were here, but there was no water," said park resident Alejandra Ayon, whose mobile home was partially burned.

Compton Mayor Omar Bradley and the owner of the property blamed a jurisdictional dispute with state authorities for the lack of water at the El Rancho Mobile Home Park, located in the 16000 block of Atlantic Drive.

They said the state's Department of Housing and Community Development had intervened to prevent the city eight months ago from requiring that the hydrants be hooked up to the water main.

The coroner's office hadn't released the names of the dead by late Sunday. Residents and family members identified them as Saveriana Santana, 53, and her grandchildren, Christian, 10, and Veronica, 8, whose last names they were unsure of.

The children were survived by their mother, Veronica Lopez, and brother, Sostenes.

Two neighbors were treated for smoke inhalation. The origin of the fire, which destroyed two homes and damaged a third, remained unknown.

Trailer park owner Joseph Corda, of Gilbert, Ariz., gave to The Times a copy of an April 13 letter from the state housing department contending Compton had no authority to require the hookup and saying it was up to the state agency to issue a permit for it.

Bradley referred to this letter--and a continuing dispute over it between city and state officials--in assessing blame for the initial inability to fight the 1 a.m. blaze.

A spokeswoman for the state housing department, Alana Golden, declined immediate comment on the dispute but said an inspector from the department's Riverside office has been ordered to pull the official files for inspection and go to the site of the fire today.

Altogether, two mobile homes and part of another were consumed by the time firemen could rig lines from the city's water main to the park, home to several hundred residents.

Meeting with reporters at the site, Bradley expressed great frustration over the failure to finish the hydrant hookup, and residents said a fire five years ago in the park had also found water lines empty.

"We were compelled to do something, but the state wouldn't let us," Bradley said.

He said the city passed an ordinance two years ago requiring a hookup and since the state letter "we've been conducting an investigation" in trying to resolve the matter.

The owner, Corda, reached by telephone, said he had already spent $50,000 installing water lines and four hydrants inside the park, but halted work after the April 13 letter from the state out of fear of not having the proper permits for the hookup.

Corda said he had been told by the city a water pumper could be used to fight a fire if one should break out. But no pumper showed up Sunday, he said.

The letter from the Housing and Community Development Department that Corda faxed to The Times was addressed to a lobbyist for mobile home owners that Corda had asked to look into the hydrant situation. It was signed by Jack L. Kerin, a field operations manager.

In it, Kerin said, he had reviewed state law and "the city has no authority to impose such requirements in an existing mobile home park.

"I might add that if the park owner should choose to upgrade the fire protection system in their park they would need the approval of the local fire department, but this department would be the agency to issue the permit and inspect the work," he said.

"I have discussed this with the department's legal affairs office and they concur with my interpretation of the Mobile Home Parks Act."

Corda also faxed copies of correspondence between his lawyers and the city, in which the civil servants said they were trying to work out a solution with the state. Corda said he hesitated to go forward without such a solution, fearing liability if he did it the wrong way.

Residents interviewed in the park were angry.

Maria Hernandez, who said she pays $500 a month rent for the mobile home in which she resides, said work had begun with the laying of pipes and installation of hydrants about a year ago.

The police ticket residents for parking in fire lanes inside the park, she said, but no water is running through the pipes, which are separate from smaller pipes carrying household water.

"Something has to be done--right now," Hernandez said.

She and other residents told of trying vainly to fight the fire with their garden hoses, connected to the household water lines.

Staff writer Carl Ingram in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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