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2 found dead after fire near Compton

Bodies of woman, girl are recovered amid the rubble of scorched auto repair shop.

September 10, 2013|Angel Jennings and Richard Winton
  • L.A. County Coroner K-9 handler Karina Peck guides her human remains detection canine through the rubble left by a fire near Compton on Monday. The bodies of a woman and a girl were found in the back of the mechanic shop, officials said. The upstairs had been converted into an illegal loft and living space.
L.A. County Coroner K-9 handler Karina Peck guides her human remains detection… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

For 10 hours, crews combed the rubble in a charred auto mechanic shop near Compton, looking for a mother and her 12-year-old daughter who disappeared in a pre-dawn fire Monday.

A search-and-rescue team pushed through "pack-rat-like" conditions inside -- carrying out piles of debris and using a plow truck to dig out of a mound of rubbish taller than the firefighters, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Scott Miller said.

After numerous trips into the building with a cadaver dog, authorities confirmed that the bodies of a woman and a girl had been discovered. A father and three children escaped the burning building before firefighters arrived, Miller said.

The coroner is awaiting test results before naming the two victims, but family members identified the dead as Teresa Lopez, 42, and her 12-year-old daughter, Margarita.

L.A. County Sheriff's homicide Lt. John Corina said initial indications are they died of smoke inhalation. Corina said arson investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire.

The two bodies were found in the back of the mechanic shop, Los Angeles County Assistant Coroner Ed Winter said. The upstairs had been converted into an illegal loft and living space.

Michelle Lockhart, who lives across the street, said a loud explosion shook her house about 2 a.m. when the fire broke out.

She saw a girl screaming and crying outside the burning building and trying to get inside to save her family.

"She was hysterical," Lockhart said. "It hurt me so bad to see her out there."

As Lockhart stood on a corner diagonal from the building, there was a second explosion. Lockhart and several other neighbors ducked for cover, she said.

"It was burning so hot, there is no way anybody could have gotten out of there," she said.

As friends and relatives dealt with the deaths of their loved ones, officials were trying to determine why a family of seven was living in a commercial building permitted for industrial use. Officials said the family had converted the top floor of the building into a loft, where two parents, their four children and a grandson lived.

"We had no knowledge that people were living on the premises," said Bob Spencer, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. "That would be illegal."

Two years ago, Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety inspectors issued several code violations to the property owner for junk, trash, disabled cars, miscellaneous personal items and household appliances littering the property. The department was working with him to bring the building up to code.

In May, the property owner asked for a week to clean up the debris. When he didn't comply, the department sent a formal letter a month later warning him to abate the violations, Spencer said.

"This type of material is an eyesore and health risk when you have all this junk on the property, and a safety risk," he said.

The fire had engulfed the roof by the time firefighters arrived at the building, at 4319 E. Compton Blvd. Miller said rescue efforts were dangerous, with debris stacked more than six feet high.

Automotive parts and debris clogged the living quarters and caused the blaze to burn longer and hotter, and the loft to collapse, Miller said.

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angel.jennings@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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