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Orange County | PLACENTIA FIRE TRAGEDY

Fire Kills Dad, 3 Young Sons

Blaze: Placentia man tries to save his children, only to be trapped with them. Woken by her husband, wife survives.

January 30, 2002|EVAN HALPER, JESSICA GARRISON and JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Donald Ybarra raced into the inferno to save his three sons from their burning home. Outside, his neighbors tried furiously to tame fast-moving flames with a garden hose. Intense heat beat them all.

In the span of four minutes Monday night, Ybarra and the boys were dead, his wife was badly burned, and a close-knit Placentia neighborhood was left to grieve.

On Tuesday, fire investigators used a dog trained to sniff out accelerants but were unable to determine the origin and cause of the blaze, which broke out about 9:30 p.m. on a cold night on Joan Way.

The fire killed Ybarra, 39, and sons Brandon, 7, Connor, 4, and Jacob, 2. The boys' mother, Melodie Ybarra, 36, was treated for second-degree burns over most of her back.

Melodie Ybarra told neighbors that she and her husband tried to climb the stairs to their boys' second-floor bedrooms. She was chased back by flames and ran to a neighbor's home for help.

Donald Ybarra kept going, and never made it out.

"Don laid down his life. He laid down his life to get to his children," said Father Tim Ramaekers, pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Placentia, where the family worshiped. "He is an example of heroism and love."

Ybarra's body was found in an upstairs bedroom with two of his children, fire officials said. The third child was found in another bedroom. The family's golden retriever, Summer Rain, also died. The deaths rocked the neighborhood where the Ybarras had lived for years, taking part in Friday night summertime block parties and the annual Fourth of July celebration, in which children decorated their bicycles with streamers and rode in a parade.

Neighbor Ki Tipton said Ybarra, who installed and serviced electric security gates, was the neighborhood soccer coach.

"He was a big old kid," she said. "He played hockey, soccer with the kids all the time. He taught my little girl how to play basketball. They were all about their kids."

Sierra Vista Elementary School, behind the cul-de-sac, is the community's focal point. Melodie Ybarra was in charge of the school's yearbook.

"This was a real close street," Scott McMillan said. "There are kids all up and down the street, all under the age of 10 playing together all the time. My two kids were always down at their house playing roller hockey."

Brandon Ybarra was a second-grader at Sierra Vista. His teachers said he was well-liked and loved to give hugs. Math and science were his favorite subjects. He adored dinosaurs.

Principal Donna Libutti began calling teachers at 6 a.m., telling them what had happened. Every parent in Brandon's class was called. Counselors were made available.

Brandon's teachers talked to his classmates and said to think about the good things they remembered about him.

"It's OK if your heart is sad," Libutti told them. "It's OK to cry."

Tipton's husband, Ted, said the pounding on his door came late Monday evening as he was settling in for the night. Melodie Ybarra was standing there in her underwear, screaming. Her face was smeared with soot. Her hair was singed.

"She was completely hysterical," Tipton said. "She said the kids were still in the house. Don had gone after them but she couldn't get back in."

Ki Tipton put a robe on Ybarra as Ted Tipton looked at his neighbor's home. It was engulfed in flames.

But Melodie Ybarra darted back across the street and met a neighbor who had hopped over a cement wall behind the Ybarra house. The two pulled out a ladder and hoisted it to the side of the home. The man tried to climb to the second floor but was turned back by the heat.

Another neighbor came racing down the street in a car. He used a towel to sling bricks at the upstairs windows, hoping to provide Ybarra a way out.

Other neighbors ran around the house shouting Don's name. Still others pulled out a garden hose and began spraying.

"It wasn't doing any good," neighbor Scott McMillan said. McMillan grabbed the ladder, moved it to another part of the house and began climbing.

"We were shouting to see if anyone could hear us," he said. "The windows were blowing out of their frames."

McMillan's wife, Marcia, watched from the street. She shouted to her husband to get away.

"We thought he was a goner," Ted Tipton said of McMillan. "He really tried, but there was no chance."

By now, Melodie Ybarra was standing in the street, praying with neighbors.

"We watched her in horror as she realized what was happening," Coley Fisher said. "The fire department was not here long when it was evident they would not be able to get into the house."

Indeed, firefighters got only 15 feet in the house before they too were driven back by the heat, officials said. Shortly thereafter, the roof collapsed. It took two hours to extinguish the blaze.

As the fire raged, neighbors watched the windows for signs that someone was trying to escape.

There were none.

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