ELIZABETH, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – A devastating fire left a woman dead and her teenage daughter critically injured Wednesday.
As CBS 2’s Kathryn Brown reported, the four-alarm blaze broke out at 2:37 a.m. in the residence behind 234 Orchard St.
“It looked like a Hiroshima of fire,” said neighbor Melissa Yon.
Smoke and flames tore through the apartments in the building, trapping the mother and daughter inside their bedroom on the second floor.
The mother, Emma Valdivia Ramirez, 49, and her daughter, Brenda Vasquez Valdivia, 18, could not escape.
“One lady had her hand out the window screaming for help, and there were bars on the window, so she couldn’t … they couldn’t get to her quick enough,” Yon said.
Yon said she watched in horror from her bedroom window as the fire raged, helpless to save the women.
The burglar bars covering the second-story windows hampered the efforts of emergency responders as well.
Firefighters first tried to rip the bars off by hand, but instead had to pry them off with heavy tools. They were ultimately able to pull Valdivia out, alive but unconscious.
But they were not able to save her mother.
Elizabeth Fire Chief Thomas McNamara said burglar bars can be a serious hazard.
“People are always thinking, ‘I want to stop people from breaking into my house,’” McNamara said. “They’re not thinking the opposite, ‘If there’s an emergency, how am I getting out?’”
Police said the structure that caught fire used to be a three-car garage, but at some point was illegally converted into apartments.
Investigators believe unusually hot weather drove residents to plug a portable air conditioner into faulty wiring. An illegal home heating tank attached to the building fueled the flames.
The blaze quickly engulfed a neighboring garage and home as well.
“There was an explosion over there,” said neighbor Sean Ballentine. “People were crying and screaming a little bit.”
Grief-stricken family and friends — too upset to talk — instead laid two white flowers on a fire truck. They simply watched in silence as investigators sifted through the rubble.
“I’m very sad,” said neighbor Stephanie Hoffman. “Very sad.”
City leaders said the investigation into the blaze could take weeks to wrap up, and police said it is very likely that the owner of the illegal apartments could face charges.
Several firefighters and police officers were hurt in the blaze, but none of their injuries were considered life-threatening.
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