HEMET (CBSLA) – A father and his two young daughters were killed and a boy was critically wounded after huge flames tore through a two-story Hemet apartment complex early Friday morning, sending dozens of residents scrambling to safety.
Just after 1 a.m., a fire broke out in an apartment at 150 N. Alessandro St. where a family of seven was living, Hemet police Lt. Nate Miller said at Thursday morning news briefing. The fire then spread through the attic to other apartments. Video from the scene showed huge flames and black smoke shooting hundreds of feet into the air as residents evacuated.
Juan Moreno, a 41-year-old father and his two daughters, 12-year-old Maria and a 4-year-old Janessa, died at the scene, Miller said. An 8-year-old boy, Isaac, was airlifted to the University of California, Irvine Medical Center in critical condition. All four were believed to have lived in the apartment where the blaze broke out.
“I just don’t understand how it just got that bad, that quick,” one neighbor said.
The father reportedly ran back into his apartment to try and rescue other family members.
“He was truly heroic,” the children’s church teacher said. “He was that parent that said, ‘I would die for my kids,’ and he did.”
Christina, the children’s mother, baby Cecily and an 11-year-old girl, Jaelyn, who were in the apartment when the blaze began were able to get out in time.
“I didn’t know if they got out or not, but then I found out that they were trapped,” Robert Prideaux, a neighbor who lives two doors down from the family and was able to evacuate, said. “I had just talked to them about two-and-a-half hours before that.”
It took several hours for Hemet Fire Department crews to get the blaze under control.
“The fire was rapidly spreading, so they (the firefighters) were confronted with immediate rescue needs, as well as keeping the fire contained to the building of origin,” Hemet Fire Chief Scott Brown said. “These buildings are old, they don’t have fire stops, fire spreads very quickly.”
The apartment building has a common attic, which helped spread the flames. About five units suffered fire damage.
The cause of the fire was still under investigation, but a neighbor said the fire might have been started by a Christmas tree in the living room of the apartment.
“She said it was the Christmas tree,” Robert Richmond, a neighbor, said. “She was trying to put it out when it first started, and I didn’t know what she was doing, but when she couldn’t control it, she screamed for me to come help her.”
The Red Cross was assisting about 40 residents who had been displaced with temporary housing.
A makeshift memorial was set up outside of the apartment building Friday night
A GoFundMe page has been set up by the family to help cover funeral and medical costs. As of Friday evening, it had already raised more than $8,000 of its $20,000 goal.