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The Region

Fire Victims Wait to Claim Goods

Owners of a Santa Ana apartment complex burned last week say safety tests must be finished before residents can retrieve belongings.

December 09, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of struggling residents displaced by two blazes last week in a Santa Ana apartment complex are still waiting to retrieve belongings from their units, as some begin their second week in temporary housing.

The apartment owner said Monday that state law prohibited residents from returning to their residences until mandatory air-quality tests are conducted. The tests are expected to be completed next week.

Many of the low-income families stayed at a shelter at the Raymond A. Villa Fundamental Intermediate School gymnasium until it was closed Monday afternoon.

By then, most had found other accommodations on their own or were placed by the American Red Cross in temporary apartment units or motels.

"We do not understand why we can't go back in and get our possessions," said Gabriela Lopez, a mother of two who had lived in La Serena Apartments on Lyon Street until last Tuesday when the two blazes destroyed 38 units, damaged 30 others and displaced as many as 500 residents.

"We are worried our things could be stolen or damaged."

Residents were most concerned about televisions, videocassette players, jewelry and other items of value.

Officials said the first fire started accidentally in a mattress in an upstairs bedroom, possibly by a child playing with matches or a cigarette, or by an adult smoking in bed.

A second fire in a separate building appears to have been set, said Santa Ana Fire Department spokesman Anthony Espinoza. The second fire is suspicious, but there is not enough evidence to consider it arson, he said.

Bob Hart, senior managing director for Kennedy-Wilson Inc., the Beverly Hills company that bought the La Serena property more than two years ago, said damage totaled several million dollars.

Hart said his company is required by the state to check for noxious fumes or lingering toxins before residents can return to the two affected buildings.

Hart said tenants, who paid as much as $1,350 a month in rent, had had the opportunity to collect a few belongings last week before the company knew of the state requirement.

Lopez said the company has not provided enough information to residents.

"They say they want to help, but we don't see it," she said.

Hart said the company had set up a booth at the gymnasium to help residents find other homes and to help them receive free clothing, and was setting up a fund that would provide them with financial help.

The company gave residents back their security deposits and any prepaid rent, Hart said.

Red Cross spokeswoman Lynn Howes said 49 families were receiving financial assistance and food from her organization.

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