A small, unburned patch of the living room under a caved-in roof is all that remains of Omar Hernandez’s house after a massive fire tore through his block in South Los Angeles this week. Pink insulation and overhead lights dangle from above as he tiptoes around glass shards and gravel in slippers.
Hernandez, 53, and his wife and cousin are spending nights at a friend's apartment in Glendale, but return every day to what is left of the house to salvage any belongings. The plan is to move everything out by Monday as they search for a new home and some answers.
Before dawn Tuesday, flames swept through an apartment building under construction in the 1500 block of East Vernon Avenue in the working-class neighborhood of Central-Alameda. Burning hot and fast through the exposed wood of the building's framing, the fire spread quickly to neighboring homes, injuring three people and displacing 17, including Hernandez.
Seven buildings were damaged, including five that were left at least partially unsafe for occupancy. Entry is prohibited to one single-family home and two duplexes deemed completely uninhabitable, according to the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.
As neighbors sift through the remnants of their belongings and seek new housing, many are pointing to the building under construction. City records show that it was to be a four-story affordable housing complex and that it had received expedited processing, clearances and approvals under Mayor Karen Bass' Executive Directive 1.
“I blame the owner of the construction site,” Hernandez said. “They were trying to make this small plot of land into a four-story building next to small homes. Whoever said OK to this project needs to be held accountable.”
The site, steps from neighboring houses, had a problem with trespassers and no security guards on the property, multiple neighbors said.
Jerardo Diaz, 30, whose family lived in the home directly behind the site for 35 years, had even asked the construction crews to put up a bigger fence to give his family more privacy. In front of the charred remnants of his house there now hangs a red leaflet from the Department of Building and Safety reading: "Unsafe / Do not enter or occupy."
The site’s contractor, Arrow Construction Co. in Artesia, did not respond to a request for comment.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and it's unclear when authorities will make a determination, according to Los Angeles Fire Department spokesperson Margaret Stewart.
Meanwhile, those whose homes were damaged or destroyed are struggling to figure out what to do next as families face the prospect of a holiday season spent rebuilding or looking for a new home.
“To explain to a child, when it’s Christmastime, [that] all their friends have toys but they’re not going to be able to this year — because right now their mom and dad need to get a roof over their head — is going to be their reality,” said Edward Winters, 63, of Lynwood, a former East Vernon Avenue resident who visited Wednesday morning to help neighbors after seeing a GoFundMe page that had been set up for Hernandez.
Hernandez said he had not received any help from his landlord or communication from the contractor of the construction site. He works as a dental assistant and moonlights as a DJ, and said he lost three cars and $15,000 worth of DJ equipment in the fire, among other belongings.
Hilda Flores, who has known Hernandez for 20 years and set up the GoFundMe page, is housing his family in her two-bedroom Glendale apartment and has urged them to stop returning to their destroyed home.
"I told them, 'Leave the clothes.' Those are all material things we can buy again," said Flores, 41. "It's not safe."
Large planks of charred wood protrude into the walkway to the home, and pieces of insulation fall from the damaged ceiling despite a tarp they put up to cover it. Smoke and bits of charcoal still linger in the air.
"The main thing is we need a place to stay," said Isabel Perez, 67, Hernandez's wife. "A two-bedroom in this area. Anything, really."
Neighbors have voiced concern over the mental well-being of the displaced families. Perez believes her husband has been suffering from depression since the fire, and says their dog, Mia, suffered burn injuries on her head and must be taken to the veterinarian.
“Omar is crying every hour and wakes up in the middle of the night crying from nightmares,” she said. "Mia keeps on whimpering and crying too. If something is seriously wrong with Mia, he might die."
"At least we lived," Perez murmured to herself, cradling Mia.
A spokesperson for City Councilmember Curren Price, who represents the area, acknowledged the anguish victims are feeling and said the American Red Cross has been assisting the city's emergency response.
"They're in limbo, living day to day," Angelina Valencia said of the displaced residents, adding that at least one family has temporarily moved to Bakersfield to stay with relatives.
Price met with victims Tuesday afternoon, and his office has coordinated with local organizations to give the families clothing, toiletries, baby wipes, diapers and toys.
"Our own staff has donated baby clothing because most of the impacted families have young children, from a month old to a 12-year-old," Valencia said.
Price's office had connected with two families and was working to reach others.
The Red Cross has also provided residents cards with some funds, but "it's only meant to help them in the short term with their immediate needs," Valencia said. "Still, the families feel confused and desperate to get answers as they don't know what tomorrow will bring."
A disaster team, caseworkers and volunteers have been in touch with the displaced residents and will continue to offer assistance in the days to come, said Stephanie Grande, spokesperson for the Red Cross' Los Angeles region. A temporary evacuation center closed at 1 p.m. the day the fire broke out.
"Casework assistance often entails connecting those affected by a disaster with existing social service programs in the community, helping them navigate complex paperwork, providing financial assistance to help meet immediate needs, and locating help from other agencies to assist with longer-term recovery needs," Grande said.
With the shock of the fire behind them, Julise Jimemes, 56, said the neighborhood was coming together to lend what support it could to the displaced families.
When Jimemes woke up Tuesday morning, she was convinced her home would be taken by the fire. She gathered all of her important papers and belongings into her car and got ready to flee with her 87-year-old mother.
But after firefighters extinguished the blaze, Jimemes' home remained unscathed.
Thankful to be among the fortunate ones, she couldn't bear to see neighbors struggle on the block she has called home for 35 years. On Friday, she said, she planned to cook dinner for Hernandez's family.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.