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Hotel Fire Investigators Begin 'Putting Puzzle Back Together'

Los Angeles

Probe: Forensic experts want to know if Hollywood blaze began before or after blast that rocked the building. Two injured children remain in hospital.

August 19, 2001|DANIEL HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Investigators from local and federal agencies converged Saturday on the remains of the Palomar Hotel in Hollywood, taking the first steps to determine what caused the fire that killed two people and injured six others.

Forensic experts from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrived in Los Angeles on Friday afternoon. With police and firefighters from Los Angeles, they began scraping plaster and glass from the empty building on Santa Monica Boulevard early Saturday.

"It's like putting a puzzle back together," said ATF team leader Mike Bouchard.

Agents spent most of the day securing the building and "shoring things up" for the investigation.

One question they will seek to answer is whether the fire began before or after the blast that rocked the building Thursday. Potential causes include drug manufacturing, a gas leak or household chemical explosion, and arson.

"We're not coming to any conclusions," said Los Angeles police investigator Gary Lynch.

Authorities said the hotel's history of fire and health code violations is part of the investigation, but not a major one. The citations issued in July were "minor" and probably had little to do with the fire, said Fire Capt. Steve Ruda.

The two children whose mother died after handing them to rescuers and then falling from a fourth-story window remained in serious condition Saturday at Childrens Hospital. Friends who visited the 5-year-old girl and her brother, who turns 4 on Tuesday, said they mostly fear the impact of the mother's death on the children.

"They look bad. Not for the physical damage but for the psychological damage," said friend Julio Gil. "We think they can sense that their mother is gone."

The children have been taken off respirators and are able to talk, hospital officials said.

Two firefighters who suffered burns remained in good condition at Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks. Two other firefighters were treated and released Friday.

Family and friends began making funeral arrangements for the children's mother, Norma Villalobos Miranda, identified by the coroner's office as Norma Gallindo, 38. They said her body probably will be returned to her family in El Salvador, which she left in 1987.

The badly burned body of a man found on the second floor has yet to be identified. Juan "Arturo" Salazar, the building's live-in manager and brother of owner Juan Jose Ortiz, hasn't been seen since the fire, and relatives fear it is him.

About 17 residents of the hotel remained Saturday at the Red Cross shelter in Koreatown, where 25 initially took refuge.

Red Cross supervisors said the residents met for their first "support gathering" Saturday morning. It was so helpful that they requested another one the same day, said Dr. Rosemarie White.

"These people are numb and frightened," White said.

The Red Cross is offering vouchers to help them find new homes, but the agency and the residents both know that affordable housing in central Los Angeles is limited.

The father of the children burned in the blaze has set up a trust fund at the Hollywood branch of Wells Fargo Bank. For information, call (323) 463-2247.

Anyone interested in donating to the Red Cross for the hotel evacuees may call (213) 739-5267.

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