Some woke to the sounds of screams, others to the glow of a massive fire burning outside their bedroom windows.
It was just before 3:30 a.m. Tuesday as the flames swept over multiple homes in South Los Angeles, forcing people to flee with their loved ones wrapped in blankets and others cradling pets. Even down the street, neighbors could feel the intense heat.
Soon, a fire the size of a city block was burning in the heart of South Los Angeles, destroying five homes and damaging two others. Three people were hurt, and 17 were left homeless.
The size of the fire — and how quickly it ripped through the working-class neighborhood — stunned residents and sparked an extensive investigation into the cause.
More than 100 firefighters battled the fire in the 1500 block of East Vernon Avenue in Central-Alameda, which tore through an apartment building under construction and quickly spread to nearby homes, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Arson investigators are on the scene as part of the city's protocol for structure fires, the cause of the fire is under investigation and it's unclear when authorities will make a determination, LAFD spokesperson Margaret Stewart said. The blaze tore quickly through the open-sided wooden frame of the building under construction.
“When you have a building that’s in the framing stages, it’s going to burn hot and fast because you have all of the wood exposed and nothing stops; there’s no compartmentalization,” Stewart said. “There’s nothing that stops the flame, so it goes up very hot, very fast, which then exposes anything that’s around it.”
The building under construction was a four-story affordable-housing complex, according to city records. The site, right in front of the home where Jerardo Diaz's family has lived for 35 years, had no security guards, said Diaz, adding that he has noticed trespassers on the property, a point echoed by multiple neighbors. He had even asked the construction crews to put up a bigger fence to give his family more privacy.
On Tuesday morning, Diaz, 30, awoke to his father screaming. That's when he saw the flames outside their home.
Diaz dragged his father, whose mobility is limited from a previous stroke, out of the house.
“His skin is peeling off on his face, and his hair is completely burned off on that side,” Diaz said.
"When we came out the door, we already had the flames on our porch," Diaz said after the fire was put out. "I don't know — it's just like a blink of an eye. All of a sudden it burned down."
Half of the house was destroyed, and his truck was damaged, Diaz said, but he was grateful that his family was able to escape. "The heat was so hot," his 12-year-old niece, Kimberly Erendira, said.
Tomas Saqueic, 53, raced over from his home in Hollywood on Tuesday morning after he heard about the fire. His cousin lives in a home next door to the construction site.
Though Saqueic's cousin is in El Salvador, other family members were home when the fire broke out, and they got away without any injuries, he said. But the roof caved in and the side of the house was burned.
“We have memories there,” Saqueic said. “It’s a special property. There’s important papers and stuff in there, and everything that’s inside is damaged.”
The timing of the fire, with the holidays right around the corner, makes it even more difficult for his family, he said.
“This time, people are preparing to meet with family and gather for the holidays, but [you] never think about this happening," he said.
A 66-year-old man and a 64-year-old woman were taken to a hospital for serious burns, and a 30-year-old man was evaluated at the scene but declined to be taken by paramedics for further treatment, according to authorities.
It took 140 firefighters 78 minutes to put out the fire, with some firefighters from the Los Angeles County Fire Department called in to assist.
Councilmember Curren Price, who represents the area, met with the victims Tuesday afternoon, according to his office, which said it “has been actively engaged in collaborative efforts with the Emergency Management Department and other city departments to address the situation. Working alongside the Red Cross and local nonprofits, concerted efforts are underway to provide immediate assistance to affected families."
The Emergency Management Department, which coordinated the response, worked with the L.A. Department of Transportation to take displaced residents to a temporary evacuation center. The Red Cross will help determine next steps for housing those who cannot return home, Emergency Management Department spokesperson Joseph Riser said.
Around 3 a.m., Raymon Chaidec woke up to booms and yells outside his house. He looked out the window and saw an out-of-control fire towering above the utility poles on his street.
"It was way up there, even taller than the poles that you see are now burned,” said Chaidec, 58, motioning his hands to the sky.
Chaidec raced out of the house with his daughter, and they watched from their driveway as the fire engulfed the construction site across the street and encroached onto their property.
“We were ready to run,” he said. “We were scared when we saw the fire get a little close to our house, but nothing was damaged. We are so, so lucky.”
Francisco Rivas, 37, woke up to his mother yelling, “The block is on fire."
When he opened the blinds, he was hit by an intense orange glow from the fire down the street.
“Everything was lit up,” he said. “The flames were so high.”
Though the fire did not get to his house, he spent all morning sweeping ash in the yard and spraying ash off the house with a garden hose.
Aaron Vazquez, 28, heard explosions and felt his home vibrating. He looked out the window and saw orange, but didn't think it was a fire.
"I thought it was an ambulance," Vazquez said. "I look out the kitchen window and all I see are flames. There were dogs in the back, from the neighbors in the back, that were whimpering and crying."
Vazquez was able to get his family out of the home but went back inside for his cat. Intense heat radiated from the fire burning next door as he searched for his cat, which he eventually found.
"It was a huge inferno," he said.
Vazquez's home was not destroyed, but he thinks there was some water and smoke damage. The sides of adjacent homes were burned from the heat that radiated off the fire at the construction site.
Several hours after the fire started, neighbors watched from the sidewalk as crews demolished the ruins of the building that had been under construction. A bulldozer knocked over the remaining charred wooden planks to prevent any of the wood from smoldering, LAFD Capt. Carlos Caceres said, after crews convinced city officials that the building was beyond repair.
After the LAFD cleared the scene before 10 a.m., construction workers flooded the street to repair the power lines that went out during the fire.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.