Published October 28, 2003
SAN DIEGO – Some were found in their burned-out cars, or just outside them. Some were found lying next to the pets they had hoped to save. Some collapsed from heart attacks brought on by the stress of evacuation or watching their homes burn.
"This fire was so fast," said Glenn Wagner, San Diego (search) County's chief medical examiner. "I'm sure we're going to find folks who simply never had a chance to get out of their houses."
Ashleigh Roach, 16, died Sunday while she and her brother tried to drive away from the Paradise Fire, which destroyed her family's home in Valley Center.
The high school junior's brother, Jason, was driving through the smoke when their car hit another car, and then a tree. Jason, 22, escaped with minor burns; Ashleigh was trapped inside.
Their sister, 20-year-old Allyson, was critically burned while trying to save a cat. Her friend, 21-year-old Marine Steven Lovett, had to push her into his car to get her away, according to his family, who stood vigil Tuesday at a San Diego hospital where he was being treated for third-degree burns.
"He's always been a very strong, strong person," said his mother, Marian Garvin. "Steven's always been a very brave person. He's always helped everybody."
Lovett returned from Iraq in August. Said his brother, 19-year-old Greg Lovett: "If he made it through Iraq, he'll make it through this."
At the San Diego County morgue, a team of investigators worked with dental records, old X-rays, jewelry, even licenses found on nearby pets in an exhaustive effort to confirm the identities of the people who became trapped in flames.
"They're all carbonized, which means that they're well on their way to being cremated remains," Wagner said.
Determining age, or even gender is difficult, he said. Race or other common identifiers of appearance are impossible. Of the 12 bodies taken to the San Diego County morgue by Tuesday, only Roach and three others had been positively identified:
--Nancy Morphew, 51, a Valley Center horse rancher who died on Sunday as she attempted to drive away from her home.
--Galen Blacklidge, 50, of Lakeside died on Sunday while trying to escape in her vehicle.
--Mary Peace died on Sunday on the Barona Indian Reservation.
To the north in San Bernardino County, four men died from stress related to the fire:
--Chad Williams, 70, of Crestline was dashing from his house to his car with his wife on Saturday when he suffered a heart attack.
--Gene Knowles, 75, of Big Bear died on Sunday while he was evacuating.
--James W. McDermith, 70, collapsed Saturday as he was evacuating his home.
--Charles Cunningham, 93, collapsed as he stood in the street watching his house burn Saturday.
In the San Diego County fires, most of the confirmed deaths involve people who were consumed by flames in or near their cars, Wagner said.
"It's clear the fire overcame them," he said. "They got out of the vehicle and tried to flee and were knocked down by the flames, basically where they stood, often times two or three feet away from the vehicle."
At least five victims were found with the remains of their dogs at their side.
Wagner said he keeps the animal remains with their owners.
"The family usually feels very strongly about their pets, and I treat them the same way," he said.
"They lived together and they died together."