LONG BEACH (CBS) — They were three little girls but their deaths may have a big impact on how we live.
Nearly five years ago, the three Aviles sisters — 9-year-old Jasmine, 7-year-old Jocelyn and 6-year-old Stephanie — were huddled under blankets trying to keep warm in a converted garage.
Their 17-year-old aunt, Nancy Dearmas, was babysitting. Somewhere in the night, a space heater ignited and started a fire.
“I can’t understand how in a matter of minutes or hours all 3 of them were gone,” said, Dearmas, the sole survivor of the fire that killed the three girls.
“I was shaking them and they just wouldn’t wake up,” Dearmas said.
The girls had reportedly suffered the effects of carbon monoxide. Dearmas ran out of the garage to the house where her aunt lived. By the time she got help the tiny converted garage was engulfed by smoke and flames, with the girls trapped inside.
Investigators determined the space heater caused the fire. The girls had brought it with them that night to keep warm since the garage had no heat nor proper insulation.
“It had been converted into a living space by just nailing shut the doors and putting dry wall up. There was no insulation, no smoke detector,” said Captain Pat Wills, who is haunted by what he saw in the garage that night. Even five years later, the 36-year veteran firefighter cannot talk about that fire without getting emotional.
Wills has been pushing the Aviles law, named after Jasmine, Jocelin and Stephanie, that is designed to outlaw garage conversions. He says, matter-of-fact, “Garages are for parking vehicles, not for families.”
Since 2006, 11 people have died in Los Angeles County and Long Beach in fires that start in illegally-converted garages. In Long Beach alone, the city has identified 650 of these types of garages.
The problem is expected to grow given the struggling economy. These spaces are typically a much cheaper alternative to apartments. The garage where the girls were killed rented for $400 a month.
Last April, because of Wills’ efforts, the Long Beach City Council adopted the Aviles law. It took the existing laws already on the books meant to fight illegally-converted garages and put them all under one umbrella law, to honor the three lives lost.
Now, Wills and Councilman Dee Andrews have made it their mission to have the Aviles law adopted by the state.
“I will go, well, in case I have to walk it all the way to Sacramento myself,” Wills said.
To read more about the law, click here.
Dearmas said the grief she carries will always be there.
“Nothing will make it better, but if something good could come from this, then it would make a big difference,” Dearmas said.