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Woman Killed in Fire; Housing May Be Illegal

September 25, 2004|Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writer

A fire early Friday morning killed a woman and trapped other tenants in what may have been an illegal boardinghouse with barred windows and no smoke detectors on the second floor of a used appliance shop in South Los Angeles.

The fire occurred at 12:43 a.m. at PJ's Used Appliance Shop at 1416 W. Slauson Ave., which may have actually housed a locksmith or an automotive business, authorities said. The building's second floor was divided into about 10 living units that shared a central kitchen.

City investigators from the Department of Building and Safety are expected to determine if the building was permitted to house tenants or was zoned for commercial use only, said Jim Wells, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman.

If the building owner was improperly renting out living quarters, Wells said, "I would think he could face some criminal charges."

Once authorities determine whether the building was being improperly used as a boardinghouse, Wells said, they will decide what action may be taken against the owner for the barred windows and lack of smoke detectors.

"If it was being properly used as a residential area they should have had a way to get those windows open," he said.

About 75 firefighters who arrived to battle the blaze found residents of the two-story building with their faces pressed against the barred windows, Wells said. "To get out of the windows on the second floor was impossible because the bars did not have a quick release mechanism," he said.

Neighbors said that smoke billowed out from behind the residents as they gasped for air.

Next-door neighbor Maria Salcedo, 43, said the screams for help awoke her. She ran to her backyard and saw firefighters using rotary saws to cut through the bars as they worked to save the desperate tenants. "It was so sad because they just couldn't go anywhere," she said. "They were yelling for their lives."

Firefighters eventually rescued all six people trapped inside, Wells said. Three residents were injured -- one of them critically -- from smoke inhalation, he said. And one woman, believed to be in her 50s, died later in the morning at a hospital.

The blaze was doused in about 18 minutes, Wells said. An investigation into the cause has been opened, he said. A call to the building's owner requesting comment was not returned.

Salcedo said she had bars and gates on the windows and doors of her house to protect her family because of crime in the neighborhood. But if they had to flee a fire, she said, a lever would pop the metal screens open.

"You need to be able to get out fast," she said, "because you never know."

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