Fire Inspectors have determined that the fire Sunday at 2160 Martin Luther King Way that claimed the lives of UC Berkeley student Azalea Jusay, 21, and her parents, Francisco and Florita Jusay, both 46, of Lakewood, began when someone left a box of clothes or papers on top of or too close to a floor heater on the first floor of the two-story, 60 year-old wooden home.
Berkeley Fire Chief Reginald Garcia opened a press conference Monday by expressing regret and giving condolences to the family and friends of the victims on behalf of the city. It is a “deep loss for the community,” he said.
Garcia said that the investigation found that the victims were likely overcome with smoke, and that they have found no evidence of smoke detectors at this point.
Garcia said that when the Fire Department responded to the call at 6:40 a.m. Sunday, the first floor of the house was completely engulfed and smoke was pluming out the of second-story windows.
Firefighters from Station 5 aggressively attempted to enter the building, but were unable to do so. Garcia said that they dispatched another alarm upon arrival and that a total of 29 firefighters were able to contain the blaze.
Sadly, the family had already succumbed to the heavy smoke. They were found in separate bedrooms, he said.
Michelle Plesa, 21, escaped the fire by jumping out of a second story window at the front of the house after she was alerted by a passing bicyclist who was outside the house yelling that the house was on fire.
Plesa warned firefighters that there were three other people in the house, but the fire progressed too rapidly for the firefighters to get inside.
He said that, after the fire, a firefighter was unable to open Azalea Jusay’s bedroom window in the rear of the house.
An investigation is underway to determine if the owner of the house, whose name Garcia wouldn’t release, was in violation of a city law requiring windows to be able to be opened and to have working smoke detectors in the house.
He said if violations are found, the results will be referred to the district attorney.
Capt. Bobby Miller of the Berkeley Police Department said that if the owner is found in violation of city laws, that it would be a misdemeanor offense. Neither the city attorney nor assistant city attorney were available for comment Monday.
Garcia said that the investigation will address the municipal code, the fire code and housing code, all of which require smoke detectors and operable windows.
A violation of the fire code requiring smoke detectors carries a $100 fine for the first offense, $200 the second and $500 for repeated violations, Garcia said.
Garcia said that if the case is not one of criminal negligence, the fire department would rely on code compliance. The district attorney would bring any liability or negligence charges, if they are found.
Throughout the 30-minute conference, Garcia stressed the importance of smoke detectors in every room.
“You can’t have enough smoke detectors,” he said.
Garcia said that investigators sifted through every piece of debris in the area where a detector should be.
“Generally we find evidence or residue or a battery,” he said. “It’s unusual to find no evidence, but it’s possible.”
He said the owner of the house told him that a smoke detector was in place at the top of the staircase.
Supervising Housing Inspector Carlos Romo said that in a single family home, every level with a bedroom requires a smoke detector. But a centrally located detector in a stairwell could serve all the bedrooms, he said.
The light-blue house had four bedrooms on the top floor, and one downstairs, he said.
Garcia said that all rooming houses, hotels and dormitories are required to have a smoke detector in every sleeping room, but there is no such requirement for a single family home.
“We generally wouldn’t inspect that home,” Garcia said.
Romo said that the last time the house was inspected was in September, 1995, and violations were found. He said that the owners at that time remedied the problem and installed a smoke detector.
Neighbor Arash Azarkhish, who attempted to help rescue the victims, said he was awaken by a man yelling that the house was on fire, but didn’t hear a smoke detector.
“It was all very quiet,” he said.
The house was being rented to Jusay, Plesa and three other young women, all students at UC Berkeley. The Jusays were helping their daughter move in, said Assistant Fire Chief Michael Migliore.
Geralyn Villaflor, 21, had just moved her belongings in the day before, but decided to stay with her parents that evening at a hotel near the airport.
Another woman had moved her belongings in Friday, but had gone to Las Vegas, and the other roommate was still in Southern California, Migliore said.
Garcia said the tragedy was avoidable.
The city employs a “very aggressive public fire safety education program,” and gives away free smoke detectors to citizens, he said.
He added that batteries in detectors should be changed twice a year.
“You should change the battery in a smoke detector every time you change your clock,” he said.
Migliore urged everyone, especially parents moving their kids into rented houses to check for – and test – smoke detectors.
“We have never investigated a fatal fire where there was a smoke detector,” he said. “Smoke detectors do save lives.”
Last November a 17-year-old teen died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a Berkeley apartment where a vent was determined to be clogged. The landlord was not held responsible.