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Marina mourns five young adults who died in fire

Relatives said the victims — disabled residents of a licensed home — had been happy and well cared for.

November 08, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Mike March works on covering a destroyed home-care facility for the disabled in Marina, Calif., where five people died in a fire.
Mike March works on covering a destroyed home-care facility for the disabled… (Paul Sakuma, Associated…)

Reporting from San Francisco -- Janette "Netty" Navarro used sing-song sounds to make her needs known.

John Hernandez was admired for his sweetness — and his insistent style of letting others know when he was hungry or thirsty.

Monica Calderon, joyful and affectionate, was beside herself when she and other young women from the group home were hosted at a local high school prom. They prettied up for the occasion, wearing make-up and corsages.

The disabled young adults — ages 22, 21 and 24, respectively — died along with two others when the Mt. Carmel Adult Residential Facility, a single-story home in the Northern California town of Marina, became engulfed in flames late Saturday.

Rubicella Ramirez, 26, and Mary Morales, 22, also perished. The only surviving resident remained in a hospital Monday with life-threatening injuries, officials said.

An aunt of Calderon's said she was the only resident at Mt. Carmel who had been able to walk on her own. Two caregivers who were awakened by a smoke alarm tried unsuccessfully to rescue their vulnerable wards. They, along with four police officers who ran inside the burning home to aid firefighters, suffered smoke inhalation.

Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado called the blaze "a tragedy of a magnitude we haven't experienced before." His primary focus, he said Monday, was "to find out what the surviving families need, and what the victims would have wanted."

The City Council is to meet Tuesday night to consider ways to help. A local church has offered memorial services free of charge. Mental health counselors were called in to assist the first responders. And at the charred home — visible from the coast's scenic California Highway 1 — a shrine of balloons and flowers was growing.

"My heart is just torn apart," said Wendy Adler, who manages another residential facility for severely disabled adults in Marina and knew most of those killed. "They are sweet, sweet angels, and I know Purita felt that way about them too," she said of one of Mt. Carmel's owners. "I saw them thrive under her care."

The facility has been licensed for adult care to Purita Belmonte and Julieta Duerr since June 2009 and had generated no complaints, California Department of Social Services spokesman Michael Weston said. It was run by Duerr as a children's home for four years before that.

Adler and others said the home had a family feel. As the children bloomed into adulthood, the facility shifted its license to keep caring for them rather than eject them. Calderon had lived there a decade, her aunt told local media, and was "very happy."

Lt. Rick Janicki, spokesman for the Marina police and fire departments, said other families also described the home as "very caring." Belmonte and Duerr — who did not respond to a call seeking comment — and their employees were cooperating fully with the investigation, Janicki said.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives is assisting the small city, as is a Monterey County fire investigator. Preliminary findings indicated that the blaze started in a front bedroom where two of the residents lived. The investigation was continuing, officials said, but there did not appear to be evidence of any criminal conduct.

Father Jon Perez of Epiphany Lutheran & Episcopal Church said many of his congregants volunteered with the Special Olympics and were stunned by the loss of life. Perez, who had spoken to Duerr, described her as "deeply shaken to the foundation."

"This is a community that has a great can-do spirit," Perez said, his voice cracking. "We're all feeling it."

lee.romney@latimes.com

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