At 63, Barbara Jordan suffered from health problems but lived alone to keep her independence. She vowed not to die at a hospital.
"She was like Katharine Hepburn," said her son, Brook, 43, of Moreno Valley. "She had a frail body, but she was strong-willed. She wanted to live life a certain way, and she wouldn't give for anything."
Jordan, a longtime smoker, died early Sunday after apparently falling asleep in a living-room chair, leaving a smoldering cigarette that grew into a blaze with thick smoke, her son said.
The woman, who lived in the one-bedroom upstairs apartment in the Buena-Clinton neighborhood of Garden Grove, was burned over 90% of her body. The fire was confined to the living room and took only four minutes to extinguish, said Mike Bublitz, Garden Grove Fire Department battalion chief.
Neighbors heard Jordan's television blaring through the walls shortly before 8 a.m. Sunday but did not hear any calls for help or sounds of trouble.
Peter Ly was on his computer next door when he heard glass breaking.
He ran outside and saw Jordan's windows broken and black smoke around the door. He kicked it open, and other neighbors doused the flames with buckets of water.
"The smoke was so thick, it was pitch black," said Ly, who has lived in the complex for about three years. "It was too late. I couldn't save her."
Jordan, who had lived in the complex for 10 years, used to take walks in the courtyard, but when her health deteriorated about three years ago and she needed to use a cane, she confined herself to her home, neighbors said.
"I've never seen what she looks like," said Nhan Nguyen, 43, who lived next to Jordan and was one of the people who helped fight the flames. "I've seen her hand more than her face because she'd reach out to sign paperwork when caretakers came by at least twice a week to drop off her medication."
Brook Jordan said he had spoken with his mother at 9:30 p.m. Saturday to let her know he was coming by the next day to take her grocery shopping.
He said his mother, who was born in Pennsylvania, enjoyed knitting bed covers and was a movie buff. She developed heart and chronic breathing problems several years ago.
"She was a sweet woman who liked to live her life doing what she loved," he said Monday as he collected boxes of pictures, mementos and documents from his mother's apartment. "We told her all the time that she should stop smoking. But she wouldn't listen."