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Four killed, 18 injured in San Bernardino hotel fire December 28, 2002

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A residential hotel with a history of fires and safety violations erupted in flames before dawn Saturday, killing four people and injuring 18 others as firefighters pulled dozens to safety.

People were seen hanging out of windows at the 111-room Sunset Hotel when firefighters arrived shortly before 1 a.m., officials said.

Rescuers used ladders to pluck more than 30 people, including a 2-month-old infant, from third-floor windows.

Philip Blacksher, 45, who has lived in hotel for 2 years, said he tried to run out of his room and down the stairs but was blocked by thick smoke.

"I couldn't see anything. I heard them hollering, `The building's on fire, the building's on fire,"' said Blacksher, who managed to flee to safety.

Janice Hernandez, 45, a four-month resident, said she also encountered black smoke when she opened her door.

"I'd gone to the right, I'd gone to the left," said Hernandez, who then darted across the hallway into a neighbor's room where six people took refuge. They eventually were plucked to safety.

It took 80 firefighters from several agencies about an hour to douse the blaze, which was confined to the top floor of the three-story hotel. Damage was put at $150,000.

The hotel's owner declined to speak to reporters at the scene.

A 911 call from the lobby sent firefighters to the hotel 60 miles east of Los Angeles. No one triggered the central alarm system, firefighters said.

"I just started running along, trying to knock on doors, saying 'C'mon people! Out, out, out!"' desk clerk Gary Chaney said.

San Bernardino County firefighter Grant Hubbell said firefighters dragged their hoses from the lobby up to the top floor, where smoke was so thick they crawled through hallways on their hands and knees.

The flames were confined to a small area but the smoke was hot enough to melt television sets and smoke detectors and blister paint.

All four of the men who died were found on the third floor of the hotel.

The hotel's night manager died after grabbing a fire extinguisher and taking an elevator to the third floor, which was engulfed in flames. His body was found in the elevator alcove where the blaze was believed to have started.

"When the elevator door opened, he was right in the middle of the fire," city fire Battalion Chief Mike Alder said. "He probably took one or two breaths and that was it."

Firefighters also found a body wrapped in a red sleeping bag outside a third-floor room and another under a window inside a room. Hours later, an outline of that man's body could still be made out against the soot-stained carpet.

The shower had been left running and firefighters found wet towels in the room.

"He probably never got a chance, to tell the truth," Hubbell said.

The fourth man was found in the bathroom of another guest room.

The San Bernardino County Coroner's Office did not immediately release the victims' identities. The coroner's office confirmed a man 35 to 45 years old died after he was taken to a hospital, and a 50-year-old man was pronounced dead after being taken outside the building. Two men, 41 and 49, were found dead while the fire was being extinguished, the coroner's office said.

Four people suffered critical injuries. Two people were treated at the scene and the others, including five children, were either listed in stable condition or were being treated for minor injuries at hospitals in the region.

More than 90 people lived in the hotel, a drab, beige stucco box where rooms rent for $425 a month. Most live on Social Security or disability payments, residents said.

Many occupants have alcohol and drug problems, and some had been placed there by the San Bernardino County mental health department, City Attorney James Penman said.

The blaze started in a 32-gallon trash can on the top floor, where residents said trash had piled up periodically. Firefighters had doused two previous trash can fires at the hotel since September, including one in the same third-floor container on Nov. 8.

The hotel had no sprinkler system but Alder said it passed a fire inspection in August.

Penman said the hotel had a history of fire and safety code violations, and the batteries had been replaced on numerous smoke detectors after the summer inspection. Those repairs, he said, probably saved a number of lives.

Fire doors also were installed last month.

"If people stayed in their rooms with the doors closed, they had a pretty good chance of surviving," Hubbell said.

Sunset Hotel fire focused attention on mentally ill

By Emily Sachs
Staff writer

In 1969, the Sunset Hotel touted itself as "San Bernardino's Newest and Finest in the Heart of Downtown."

By 2002, it was a low-rent, last resort for many of San Bernardino's mentally ill and disabled.

When a lit cigarette met a third-floor trash can sometime after midnight on Dec. 28, 2002, the deadly blaze that followed put a spotlight on the limited options for housing and care available to the mentally ill.

"We've got a pecking order in society and people who are disabled and mentally ill are at the bottom," said Carla Jacobs, an Orange County-based board member for the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va.

Four people died at the Sunset that night, 19 were hurt and hospitalized and 90 people were left without a home.

Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, a healthcare worker treating a patient there reported an infestation of cockroaches and trash in the stairwell.

Five months before the fire, city code enforcement and fire officials handed 506 correction notices to the owner for everything from exposed wiring to improper fire doors.

Owner Siegfried Faucette responded positively and city officials credit improvements, such as fire-safe doors, with saving many lives.

City Fire Marshal Doug Dupree said the condition of the hotel was understandable given its surroundings.

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