SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — The caretaker at a California group home for developmentally disabled adults that burned to the ground Wednesday tried to beat back the flames with a blanket before dragging two residents outside, but she was unable to rescue two others as the fire spread, authorities said.
The 71-year-old caretaker rushed back into the house by a back door, where flames were less intense, but she was finally rescued herself by firefighters as she cried out for the two women she couldn't save. The names of the caretaker and the dead were not released.
The caretaker, who was severely burned on her face and arms, had such a close bond with residents of the home that they called her Mommy and she called them her kids, even though most were elderly, neighbors said.
"Our firefighters went in and pulled her out. She was saying, 'My kids, my kids,'" Orange County Fire Authority spokesman Steve Concialdi said. "It was an endearing term. She loved the residents she cared for."
Two residents, 48 and 52, died and five people were injured, including a firefighter and the caretaker. One of the people killed was found in her bed. The other was discovered on the floor next to a bed in a second bedroom.
Three other women, between 30 and 60, were hospitalized with smoke inhalation and the firefighter was treated for burns to his hand, Concialdi said. The third resident who survived was carried out by a firefighter who discovered her asleep on a couch, he said.
The fire appears to have started with an electrical failure in a personal electronic device, Concialdi said, but he declined to say what type of device it was. Neighbor Julie Guzman awoke to sirens and looked out her window to see firefighters swarming. A few minutes later, she heard crying and looked out again to see an older resident of the home sitting in Guzman's driveway and sobbing as paramedics tried to convince her to get into an ambulance.
"She was panicked. She was crying and calling for her 'Mommy.' They said, 'Let's go with your Mommy, she's in the ambulance,'" Guzman said. "She was scared, very scared. She was flapping her hands." The caretaker would often take the women for walks or pull a couch outside so they could sit in the sun, Guzman said. On July 4, she held a barbeque.
The house had a smoke detector in every room and the ones that were not destroyed were functional, Concialdi said. Home administrator Gloria V. Uy told the Fire Authority at the scene that a fire drill had recently been conducted. Concialdi could not immediately verify that.
State records show the facility, known as Mary's Home, had been cited in the past two years for deficiencies including not conducting fire drills, broken stove burners and missing electrical outlet plates but had corrected all the problems to the state's satisfaction five months ago.
Concialdi said none of those previous deficiencies contributed to the fire Wednesday. The home was last inspected in August and had no outside complaints in the past two years. The residents had mostly mental disabilities.
Uy told The Associated Press that she and her sister, the caretaker, have owned the home since 2006 and were licensed for six residents but had only five. She said the residents slept in three bedrooms, two each in two of the rooms and one in a third room. She said her sister slept in a fourth bedroom.
"I've had it a long time," she said. "They're like my family." Neighbor Hugo Montes said he heard a smoke detector on his way to work and pried open a window to remove a mattress that was engulfed in flames, but fire quickly licked up the walls before he could do more.
He said the caretaker seemed in shock before she was taken away in an ambulance. "She was walking in circles, walking in circles in the driveway. She wasn't screaming, she was quiet but just crying and crying," he said. "I felt helpless. I wanted to do more than I could."