Fire Survivor Deems House ‘Death Trap'

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In the wake of a fire that killed a UC Berkeley senior and her parents this week, city and university officials called for stepped-up safety awareness, while the sole survivor of the fire called the burned house a "death trap."

Michelle Plesa, who escaped by jumping out of a second-story window, said the five girls who lived in the house did not think of installing smoke detectors when they moved in.

Twenty-one year old Azalea Jusay and her parents Florita and Francisco died Sunday when a cardboard box on top of a floor heater caught fire. Officials said windows in the Jusays' rooms were sealed shut, preventing escape, and that no fire detectors have been found.

Plesa said she holds landlord Manuel Reburiano responsible.

"It's hard, knowing he was responsible, even though it was an accident," she said. "He was concerned about money. It was negligence. He was not being careful."

Reburiano, a Daly City resident, used to live on Regent Street in Berkeley, according to property records. Plesa said Reburiano's daughter, who attends UC Berkeley, used to live in the house on Martin Luther King Jr. Way that burned. Reburiano and his family would not comment on the incident this week.

Plesa said she shouted to the Jusays when she awoke to a house filled with smoke. Before she escaped through her bedroom window, she said she heard Florita Jusay scream in response.

"The house was just engulfed in flames," Plesa said. "It was amazing how quick it was. There was no smoke detector, nothing. I woke up to two angels who screamed 'fire' in the street. They saved my life."

Fire officials, meanwhile, are still investigating the incident and considering criminal charges against the landlord. Jusay's close friends continue to mourn the young woman's death, remembering her as bright, warm and loving.

Although Jusay had been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, she was a tremendous athlete and completed a marathon last year, crossing the finish line with all her friends watching, Plesa said. Jusay was a resident assistant in the Unit 3 residence halls last year, where she advised and often exercised with many students.

"Everyone is in disbelief knowing all of us might have been in that house that night," Plesa said. "That hurts, but it makes me angry, too. I felt guilty that I got out, but I know there had to be a reason."

The fire has caused public officials to restate the importance of fire safety measures, particularly for college students who are first-time renters.

Landlords are required by law to install smoke detectors in every rental unit, but Berkeley Fire Chief Reginald Garcia said at a special meeting this week that students need to hold their landlords accountable.

"Most landlords are very responsible," he said. "However, not all are. Tenants need to take responsibility on their own part."

While university dormitories are equipped with fire alarms and sprinkler systems, students should always leave the building immediately when an alarm goes off, said Harry LeGrande, UC Berkeley's assistant vice chancellor for resident student programs.

"People get really desensitized with false alarms, but it's really important that when they go off that you leave," he said.

Both officials urged students to have their houses or apartments inspected. Pacific Gas and Electric offers free circuit inspection, and the Fire Department will inspect any building upon request.

A memorial service for the Jusays will be held in Southern California this weekend.


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