On Wednesday, summoning a mother's determination to protect her children as a fierce fire broke out, she dragged two of them to safety but lost two others to the flames and had to be rescued herself.
"Our firefighters went in and pulled her out. She was saying, 'My kids, my kids,'" Orange County Fire Authority spokesman Steve Concialdi said. "It was an endearing term. She loved the residents she cared for."
The caretaker, whose name has not been released, was severely burned on her face and arms. She was one of five people injured including a firefighter who burned his hand and three women between 30 and 60 who were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Two were the women the caretaker pulled out. The third was discovered asleep on the couch by a firefighter who carried her out.
Two residents, 48 and 52, died. One was found in her bed, the other discovered on the floor next to a bed.
The group home was burned to the ground.
The fire appears to have started with an electrical failure in a personal electronic device, Concialdi said, but he declined to say what type of device it was.
Neighbor Julie Guzman awoke to sirens and looked out her window to see firefighters swarming. A few minutes later, she heard crying and looked out again to see an older resident of the home sitting in her driveway and sobbing as paramedics tried to convince her to get into an ambulance.
"She was panicked. She was crying and calling for her 'Mommy.' They said, 'Let's go with your Mommy, she's in the ambulance,'" Guzman said. "She was scared, very scared. She was flapping her hands."
The caretaker would often take the women for walks or pull a couch outside so they could sit in the sun, Guzman said. On July 4, she held a barbeque.
The house had a smoke detector in every room and the ones that were not destroyed were functional, Concialdi said.
Home administrator Gloria V. Uy, the caretaker's sister, told the Fire Authority at the scene that a fire drill had recently been conducted. Concialdi could not immediately verify that.
State records show the facility, known as Mary's Home, had been cited in the past two years for deficiencies including not conducting fire drills, broken stove burners and missing electrical outlet plates but had corrected all the problems to the state's satisfaction five months ago.
Concialdi said none of those previous deficiencies contributed to the fire Wednesday.
Uy told The Associated Press that she and her sister, the caretaker, have owned the home since 2006 and were licensed for six residents but had only five. She said the residents slept in three bedrooms, two each in two of the rooms and one in a third room. She said her sister slept in a fourth bedroom.
"I've had it a long time," she said. "They're like my family."
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