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Long Beach fire kills 2 girls, hurts 1

Flames apparently ignited by a space heater sweep through an illegally converted garage.

December 15, 2007|Paloma Esquivel | Times Staff Writer

Fire tore through a small, illegal apartment in Long Beach early Friday, trapping and killing two young sisters and critically injuring a third as an aunt, uncle and several cousins watched helplessly from behind a wall of flames.

Stephanie Aviles, 6, and her sister Jasmine, 10, died in the fire, which broke out shortly before 2 a.m. at 1052 1/2 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Their sister, Jocelin, 7, suffered a heart attack and burns to about 18% of her body.

The sleeping girls and their 17-year-old aunt were in the back room of a detached garage, which had been converted into an apartment, when a space heater apparently ignited the blaze, fire officials said.

The aunt ran to the main house crying for help. She banged on the windows and screamed that the building was on fire, said an uncle who lives there but asked not to be identified. She was in shock, he said. She did not tell him the girls were still inside until after he called 911.

"I ran to the back," he said. "I tried to get in. I just couldn't. The fire was blocking the whole entrance. I tried going in there, but I just couldn't."

Firefighters arrived minutes after the call, and the blaze was put out in five minutes, fire officials said. When it was over, the walls, floors, ceiling -- nearly every inch of the 500-square-foot garage made into a bedroom and small kitchen -- were charred.

The building did not have the necessary permits for residency, said Long Beach Fire Chief Dave Ellis. It had no smoke detectors or sprinkler system. Only the front area had windows and a door. Because the fire started in the front room, the girls' only exit was blocked, officials said. "They would have had to go directly through the fire to flee," said Fire Capt. Mike Duree.

Firefighters found Jasmine and Stephanie lying on the floor near the back of a room the size of a walk-in closet and Jocelin on the floor near the doorway, Ellis said.

Inside the charred room, a lavender-striped blanket, a red sweater and the glossy pages of a fashion magazine provided the only color. The sky could be seen through broken wood planks that made up the ceiling.

Duree said that although calling for help when a fire erupts is crucial, the top priority should be to get everyone out of the building. "The first thing you've got to do is take care of yourself and your family. We can rebuild homes, but we cannot rebuild lives," he said.

Aunts, uncles and cousins gathered at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center to be near Jocelin, who was being treated in a hyperbaric chamber to help get the carbon monoxide out of her body. She later was transferred to Torrance Memorial Medical Center.

Blanca Dearmes, 19, who said she lives at the house with her mother and 17-year-old sister, said the Aviles girls liked to spend the night at the house.

"They were raised with us most of the time," she said. "They would always come over and watch movies. . . . They loved to stay over at my mom's house."

Carmen Herrera, 24, who lives nearby with the Aviles girls and their mother, Daisy Duran, 26, said Jasmine loved to go dancing. Duran also has a 7-year-old son and two toddlers, an uncle said.

"This is the first year I had the money to get all of them Christmas presents," the uncle said. "My wife bought gifts for everybody."

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.

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