Fire investigators Saturday said preliminarily evidence indicates that an apartment fire that killed a 41-year-old father and his two daughters and left another child in grave condition was sparked by an electrical malfunction related to a Christmas tree.
The fire was reported at 1:07 a.m. Friday at an apartment building at 150 N. Allesandro Street, near Latham Avenue.
The father, identified as Juan Moreno, initially escaped the blaze with his wife Christina, 11-year-old daughter Jaelyn and infant Cecily. However, he died after rushing back into the burning unit in an attempt to rescue two of his daughters who were still trapped in the fire, according to Lt. Jeff Davis of the Hemet Police Department.
The girls were identified by relatives as 12-year-old Maria and 4-year-old Janessa.
The family’s 8-year-old son Isaac was rescued, but he suffered extensive injuries and was airlifted to UCI Medical Center in Orange where he remained in grave condition, according to Hemet Police Lt. Nate Miller.
Investigators scouring through the remains of the Moreno’s scorched unit for clues were unable to find signs that there were smoke alarms in the home, according to Hemet Fire Chief Scott Brown.
“This tragedy underscores how quickly a fire can spread. Smoke alarms are a key part of a home fire escape plan,” Brown said.
Investigators said witness statements were key in helping them determine the cause of the fire.
Neighbor Robert Richmond told reporters that a Christmas tree caught fire inside the Moreno’s unit and that Juan and his wife were “trying to put it out,” screaming for help.
“Before they knew it, it went up in flames,” Richmond said.
When police and fire personnel reached the location, more than three-quarters of the occupants of the 25-unit, two-story complex had already gotten out, Davis said.
The blaze was raging on the northeast corner of the structure, Davis said, and public safety officials were immediately directed to the location by the distressed woman. She told authorities that her husband grabbed their infant and 11-year-old daughter, carrying them to safety, then darted back into the burning building for the rest of his children.
“It’s my understanding that … the 41-year-old male … went back inside to rescue other family members that were not able to get out, and he wasn’t seen alive after that, unfortunately,” Miller said.
Firefighters found the three victims dead inside the apartment, Davis said.
“He was a great guy, a great father and loved those kids,” a woman told reporters at the scene.
As of 1:30 p.m., a GoFundMe account set up to pay for the family’s funeral expenses had raised $15,788 of its $20,000 goal.
A vigil and fundraiser for the Moreno family was scheduled for New Years Eve. The event will take place between 8 a.m. and noon at the My City Youth Center, 145 N. Tahquitz Ave.
“This tragedy has reached every corner of this valley and it has been uplifting to see all of the passionate hearts that want to help,” the Facebook page for the event said.
Both the Murrieta and Hemet locations of So Cal Tacos and Beer are donating 25% of proceeds Saturday and Sunday to the Moreno family, according to the restaurant’s Facebook page. Customers must mention the Moreno family in order for the donation to be applied to their bill.
Red Cross staff were assisting the complex’s 40 displaced residents.