Mother falls from flaming window; arsonist takes the fall

By Jim Quiggle
November 1, 2005
No one knows Norma Galindo’s last terrified thoughts as she crashed onto the sidewalk, four stories below the window. She’d just handed a firefighter her two toddlers as onrushing flames readied to engulf the family amid a cloud of searing, sooty-black smoke.

Norma fell from the window, just moments after little Lupita (5) and Miguel (4) were rescued from an exploding fireball that was devouring the decrepit old Palomar residential hotel in Hollywood, Calif. early one morning in August 2001.

Norma died instantly, but the fire’s mastermind lived to face trial. He was Juan Ortiz the building’s owner. Ortiz wanted to get rid of the 76-year-old masonry building to collect insurance money and avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix code violations.

Four firefighters also were injured as they fought to save tenants from a rickety structure that had nearly exploded when an arsonist lit 40 gallons of gasoline inside.

The suspected arsonist also died. Ortiz had hired his brother Arturo – who also was the resident manager – to torch the Palomar. Arturo was found slumped over a bucket, by some gas containers near where the fire started. He was wearing two layers of clothing.

Botched the arson

Arturo had botched the job. He’d spread gasoline throughout the building that night. But thick fumes from the gasoline trickling down a stairwell hit the water heater’s pilot light. It triggered a huge explosion, like sticks of lit dynamite. Flames then shot back up the stairwell, and quickly ignited the gas-soaked hallways.

Arturo probably was caught off-guard, and never had a chance.

Flames had already engulfed all four floors when firefighters arrived just minutes after alarm at 3:41 am. Desperate tenants were calling from windows, swarming over the fire escapes, screaming.

Capt. Bob McMaster from Fire Station 35 spotted Norma in the fourth-floor window, clutching her two children in her arms, crying for help. The extension ladder wouldn’t reach Norma’s window, so McMaster stretched his arms out from the top rung, with nothing to hold onto. His margin was zero. Norma held out Miguel, and McMaster reached up, quickly gripped Miguel’s slippery, water-soaked ankle, swung him into his arms, and carried him down.

Lupita dangling by arms

By now, the relentless flames had nearly reached Norma. She dangled Lupita from the window by her two little arms, protecting her from scorching heat that already was searing Norma’s back.

Firefighter Tony Cardona climbed the ladder. He stretched his arms, grabbed Lupita’s t-shirt and swung her into his arms from his unsteady perch. He carried her down, her arms tightly around his neck.

The street scene below was chaotic. Sirens were blaring, lights were flashing. Onlookers were growing angry and restive over why firefighters still hadn’t saved Norma. Firefighters couldn’t grab her like the children; she was too big. They found a taller ladder, but struggled to swing it into place.

Smoke spewing from Norma’s window had grown thick and stewy, signaling a rapid upsurge in heat. Cardona couldn’t see her anymore from below. Suddenly he felt something brush his arm. It was Norma. She might’ve been shoved out by a sudden heat gust.

Firefighters injured

Elsewhere in the building, dozens of thinly stretched firefighters labored to control the blaze and rescue dozens of tenants. Two firemen fell through the floor near an elevator, and were injured – one with a broken collarbone. Two others received second- and third-degree burns when fiery debris cascaded down onto them. Fellow firefighters had to rescue the pair, and they needed surgery.

Prosecutors nailed building owner Ortiz in court in October. Among other things, investigators had found his finger prints and palm prints on a lid, and on a plastic bag holding a bucket container of gasoline in the building’s storage area.

Ortiz was convicted of insurance fraud, and will be retried for murder and arson after the jury deadlocked. He was scheduled to be sentenced for fraud in late November 2005.

McMaster went back to work after the fire, and saw a psychologist to deal with the trauma.

“We just put everything we had into that rescue,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “We wanted it so bad.”

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