The family of an elderly woman killed last summer in a fire at her Pico Gardens apartment is suing the Housing Authority and the city of Los Angeles, claiming the locked gates at the housing complex prevented firefighters from reaching her and saving her life.
“This was truly a tragedy, especially because my sister would still be here by my side if it weren’t for those chains,” said the victim’s only sister, Maria Ceballos, during a press conference Monday morning at Aliso Gardens.
“The chains are still there,” Ceballos said in Spanish, standing in front of the housing development’s locked gate on Clarence Street, the nearest access to the woman’s apartment.
“Something needs to change,” Ceballos added. “We need justice.”
In the early hours of August 10, 68-year-old Victoria Velazquez awoke to her Pico Gardens apartment in flames. Firefighters quickly arrived at the closest entrance to her home, but were met with a locked gate and parked cars blocking the entrance.
It took 21 minutes for 44 firefighters to extinguish the flames. An incident report showed that the fire started at the apartment’s door, preventing Velasquez from leaving the burning unit.
At the press conference, attorneys for the family said that a coroner’s report indicated that the woman remained alive while waiting for rescue as she burned. Firefighters discovered her body while searching the unit following the fire’s knockdown.
The woman was found hiding in the unit’s bathroom with the bathtub filled with water, presumably seeking shelter from the smoke and flames. She was pronounced dead at the scene at 4:50 am.
“Her mouth, trachea and lungs were found filled with soot,” said attorney Patrick Nolan, who is representing the family. “She fought for her life as long as she possibly could, but was barred from rescue.”
Nolan said he would file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family against the City of Los Angeles, which owns the apartment complex, and the Housing Authority of the City of LA (HACLA), which manages it.
Nolan said that the city and the housing authority have failed to answer the family’s questions and complaints about the gate, which remained locked on Monday.
“We haven’t been given any answers to why this gate is locked,” the attorney said. “All we have today is a family who is heartbroken.”
Brenda Marquez, one of the victim’s two daughters, said Velazquez was “everything to each and every one of us” and always strove to “support the people she loved in any way she could”.
She said her mother lived at Pico Gardens for decades and always tried her best to be a good tenant, though she would often leave for extended periods of time to visit and stay with her daughters and care for her grandchildren.
Marquez said the complex managers had inspections planned for the day after the fire, so her mother went home to make sure everything was perfect for review.
In a statement emailed Tuesday, a HACLA spokesperson said the agency “does not comment on pending litigation matters but wishes to express its heartfelt condolences to Victoria Velazquez’s family on the loss of her life.”
This article was updated on May 2 to include a statement from the Housing Authority.