Neighbors of a Compton-area auto mechanic's shop that caught fire early Monday described a heart-wrenching scene of a young girl screaming and crying in the streets as she tried to get back into the burning building to save her family.
"She was hysterical," said Michelle Lockhart, who lives across the street. "It hurt me so bad to see her out there."
Four family members — a father and three children — were able to escape the two-alarm blaze that started at 2 a.m. inside an auto mechanic’s shop with a converted second-level loft in the 4300 block of East Compton Boulevard. Hours later, the smell of smoke lingered as a cadaver dog searched the charred building for a missing 42-year-old mother and her 12-year-old daughter.
Lockhart recalled hearing a loud explosion as the fire broke out.
"It shook my house a little bit," she said. "I thought it was an earthquake."
When she went outside, she saw the fire light up the night sky and the girl running in the street. Lockhart watched as firefighters attacked the blaze. As she stood on the corner diagonal from the building, there was a second explosion. Lockhart and several other neighbors ducked for cover, she said.
The flames were so hot, Lockhart said, she could feel the heat radiating off the building.
"It was burning so hot, there is no way anybody could have gotten out of there," she said.
L.A. County Fire Inspector Scott Miller described the loft as having "pack rat-like conditions with heavy content.” Debris was stacked higher than the firefighters, making rescue efforts more dangerous, he added.
The automotive parts and debris that clogged the living quarters caused the blaze to burn longer and hotter, and the loft to collapse, Miller said.
Lockhart, who has lived near the shop for six years, said she didn't know it was a auto mechanic shop or that a family was living there. But she would often see people pick up hay at the building. On the side of the shop, a sign advertises "Compton Horse Feed."
It took fire crews 90 minutes to contain the fire. One firefighter was taken to a local hospital and treated for unspecified injuries, said Robert Diaz, supervising fire dispatcher at the L.A. County Fire Department.
The cause of the fire is unknown. A bomb squad and the Sheriff's Department has joined the investigation.
"It's a lengthy process with the amount of debris," he said. "But we are taking every measure."
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