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Apartment tenants rescued from blaze

Firefighters quickly get everyone out safely, including a newborn.

October 26, 2008|Rong-Gong Lin II | Lin is a Times staff writer.

Fire engineer Robert Otanez pulled his truck up to the scene of a two-story South Los Angeles-area apartment building fire Saturday morning and immediately began looking for a way to cut metal bars off the ground-floor windows, fearing people were trapped inside.

Then he looked up.

As smoke billowed out of the second floor, he caught the eyes of a woman in near hysterics, leaning as far as she could out the window.

Otanez then executed the classic firefighter rescue: He pitched a ladder against the building, climbed up and crawled inside the bedroom. She lifted up one of the blankets on the bed. "A brand new baby," Otanez said.

In the living room, the woman's husband was panicking. No way out -- too hot and smoky in the hallway. The window and ladder offered the only escape. Otanez asked the couple if there were any other children. No. "Let's go," he said. He plucked the infant up and handed the baby to a sheriff's deputy on the ladder. The couple followed.

In minutes, five other ladders had gone up around the building, and at each window a similar rescue scene unfolded as firefighters pulled 10 other residents from the second floor. No one was injured. And in 15 minutes the fire was out.

Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Stan Brawer said the fire in the green brick building in the 6800 block of Central Avenue, in the unincorporated Florence area, was caused by a gas dryer that had not been vented outside. Dust and lint had accumulated inside a makeshift laundry room. Other flammable objects, such as newspapers, were nearby.

"Eventually, it ignites," said county Fire Capt. John Tuck.

Firefighters were able to contain the blaze to the laundry room, but eight of the 32 apartment units were uninhabitable after losing electricity. Twenty adults, five children and two infants were displaced.

The 1923 building houses small units, and residents share common bathrooms.

Firefighters said they were disturbed that they did not hear any smoke detectors or fire alarms going off.

Owner Sixto Velazquez said he had disabled the fire alarm panel Friday after a group of children broke the glass attached to a fire alarm.

Firefighters said he told them pranksters were responsible for many false alarms. "I'm thinking, they were going to come again, so I turned off the fire alarm," Velazquez said. "No one got hurt, thank God."

Velazquez said the Fire Department asked him to fix the fire alarm, which he was doing Saturday. He also said residents have taken batteries out of smoke detectors.

Tuck said disabled fire alarm panels and smoke detectors are chronic problems in apartments in low-income neighborhoods. He said he might recommend that the owner hire a 24-hour-a-day security guard to prevent prank alarms and require routine fire drills at the complex.

"We're very fortunate today," Tuck said. "If it were not for the quick work of these [firefighters], there would have been a fatality."


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