Fla. girl evacuates elderly from burning apartments

Walter Pacheco, Sentinel Staff Writer

Praise flowed Monday for a 10-year-old Orange County girl whose instinct, quick thinking and knowledge of basic fire safety saved the lives of six families from a burning apartment building.

Kaylani Velasquez's bravery landed her in the hospital for a few hours after she went door-to-door Sunday night to alert neighbors of the flames threatening their homes.

"I inhaled a lot of smoke, but these people needed help. They are old, and I was afraid the roof was going to collapse on them," Kaylani said while rocking on a little black table in her aunt's apartment. "At school we always say, 'Be helpful, not hurtful.' So that's what I did."

Flames gutted at least six units of Lancaster Villas Apartments on Lancaster Road, but Kaylani was the only resident who needed medical attention.

Orange County Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Holton called the girl's actions "really amazing."

"She did a really good job," Holton said.

One resident, Jesus Otero, doesn't know Kaylani but said she is "God's angel."

"What she did was beautiful. She has a good heart and a good soul," Otero said.

Kaylani has lived at the apartment complex for almost two years with her aunt, Carmen Fonseca, who also is her guardian. She has no brothers or sisters.

Her proud aunt said Kaylani has always been very bright.

"She is always mindful of the neighbors, especially the elderly ones who live across the street. Kaylani is a very well-prepared young girl," Fonseca said in Spanish. "I'm just so proud that everyone has been coming here to thank her."

The fire started about 9 p.m. at 836 Lancaster Road -- the building across from Kaylani's apartment, reports show.

More than 50 firefighters responded to the apartment complex and discovered smoke and flames flickering from the roof of a second-floor unit. It took about an hour for them to extinguish the blaze, reports show.

The flames left behind charred, collapsed ceilings and shattered windows. Soot stains remained on the building's exterior walls from the water firefighters pumped into the burning embers.

Kaylani said she remembered sitting by the window with her aunt and smelling burned rubber.

"I looked out the window and saw all that black smoke coming out. I was so scared, but the first thing I did was call 911. I then ran out with a friend to help those people," Kaylani said.

One resident told officials that Kaylani knocked on his door and alerted him of the fire. He doused the flames with a hand-held fire extinguisher but was unsuccessful. He and Kaylani evacuated the unit and ran for safety.

Many residents at Lancaster Villas speak only Spanish, so Kaylani also helped translate for them when firefighters arrived.

At some point, Kaylani inhaled too much smoke from running back and forth and was taken to the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.

Holton said smoke from the fire was so heavy in the common areas of the apartment complex that it shifted onto the street, forcing officials to shut down traffic on Lancaster Road.

Fire Rescue spokeswoman Marianne Nuckles said the apartment blaze is under investigation by the state fire marshal's office.

Firefighters said the girl's quick response was due in part to their ongoing campaign to teach students fire safety and medical emergency tips.

Charles Anderson, the fire official for Orange County Public Schools, said the district has focused on teaching elementary-school students how to place 911 calls; how to locate a primary and secondary exit in case of fire; and how to stop, drop and roll to extinguish flames from their clothes.

"We really believe it's important for us to teach students fire safety because it is as important as teaching the ABCs and arithmetic," Anderson said.

Now that the crisis is past, Kaylani planned to do what she does most weekdays: attend Lancaster Elementary School, where she is a fifth-grader.

Kaylani was scheduled to speak to the entire school today during morning announcements and to recount the exciting events that made her a hero.

"I am so proud that what she learned at school was relevant enough to act so responsibly and help those people," Lancaster Principal Belinda Reyes said Monday. "She exemplifies the good character traits we try to instill in our students."

Copyright 2009 Sentinel Communications Co.

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