A young sister and brother died Thursday after they hid behind a couch during a fire at what authorities described as a property with a history of code violations in San Bernardino.
Their father also was badly burned in the blaze, which started at around 3 a.m. in the 200 block of West 14th Street, said San Bernardino Fire Department Engineer Rodd Mascis. Firefighters extinguished the two-alarm fire in about 20 minutes and pulled the three victims from the burned apartment.
"Fire was coming out of the windows, as well as heavy, heavy smoke," Mascis said. "They can hear somebody inside as soon as they made access up to that second story apartment."
After the father was rescued, firefighters went back inside and found the children huddled together behind a couch. Both were unresponsive as firefighters carried them from the home.
"They were not breathing, they were not moving," said neighbor Sunny Williams, who called 911.
The 6-year-old girl, identified as Candra Leetch, and her 2-year-old brother died at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. Neighbors said that the father had taken his pregnant partner to the hospital earlier in the day.
Candra was a student at Lincoln Elementary School where she lit up a classroom, said the school's principal, Kevin Goodly.
"She was a bright little girl," Goodly said. "Great smile."
The cause of the fire was under investigation.
Authorities told NBC4 the property has a history of code violations and police had last visited the apartment earlier this month.
And the San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters, the union, said in a statement that city budget cuts may have hampered the fire response and possibly played a role in the deaths.
The most recent violations at the property included an unsafe heater and inadequate lighting, according to the San Bernardino Police Department. Property owners claimed they attempted to evict the tenants, but said they did not comply, police said.
A man who identified himself as the injured victim's nephew, who was visiting from Texas, told NBC4 the family often turned on an oven to stay warm.
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"They say it could have been an electrical problem or a problem with the stove," said the man, who asked to be identified only as Josh.
Building code compliance officers were at the location Thursday morning.
"We have had ongoing code issues at that property since 2009," said San Bernardino Police Lt. Rich Lawhead. "We have two active cases with numerous violations. The property had basically been abandoned by the owner and the people just remain there not paying any rent."
Arlene Gonzales, whose boyfriend is the apartment block's property manager, went to the blaze after a worker at the property told them about the fire.
"The two kids were very good kids, very loving, very happy kids every day," Gonzales said. "Mother and father, very good parents. We always seen them every day (the) kids. Every day they would meet us and greet us at the door. It's just a tragedy ... what happened this morning."
And she was left in shock when she saw the children and the adult being pulled out of the building.
"It was terrible, a terrible thing to see." Gonzales said.
NBC4's Jonathan Lloyd contributed to this report.