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Published: Thursday, 7/25/2002

Survivor recalls horror of fatal East Toledo fire

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Tina Bocanegra still cries when she sees the shoes and the tote bag left at her house by her friend Mianna Moore.

The items remind Tina of the 11-year-old girl who used to live in her neighborhood. They also bring to mind three other friends who died with Mianna in a house fire in East Toledo on July 14.

And they remind her of how fortunate she was to make it out of the burning building unscathed.

“I'm lucky. I'm so lucky,” the 14-year-old girl said last night.

The suspicious fire at 618 Willard St. killed Mianna; Julie Kaintz, 17; Brandi Chapman, 12, and Melanie Murphy, 3.

Tina and the homeowner, Gabriel Garza, survived. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Yesterday, in her North Toledo home, Tina recalled what had happened before the blaze. She said she and Mianna, who had been staying at her house for a few days, went to the Lagrange Street Polish Festival on Saturday. There, they met Julie. When they left, the girls stopped at Tina's house to say they were going to Julie's.

For an unknown reason, they went to Mr. Garza's, where they watched a movie.

Eventually, all the girls went to sleep in the same second-floor room. Later, Tina heard a loud boom. Mr. Garza then came upstairs and told them that there was a fire.

The girls held onto each other as they tried to navigate the stairs amid the smoke and flames, Tina said, as she held on to Mr. Garza's shirt. Then Mianna was hit with something.

Julie, who was carrying Melanie, and Brandi went back upstairs to the room they were sleeping in, and Tina let go of Mr. Garza's shirt.

“I tried to grab Mianna to go down the stairs, but I couldn't. The flames were everywhere,” Tina said.

Tina said she sat down on the steps for a minute. When she put her head down, she saw that Mianna was dead. She closed Mianna's eyes and laid her on the steps.

“Then, I tripped and fell. I was in my own world,” Tina said. “I turned my head, plugged my nose, grabbed my [religious medal], and walked out the house.”

She didn't think she was going to live. “When I was walking out, [the house] was collapsing already,” she said.

She said she thought her other friends would survive. She said Mr. Garza did try to get back inside the house. She wanted to go back inside too, but a neighbor restrained her.

When Tina learned all of her friends had died, she was devastated. “My heart just dropped and I started screaming,” she said.

Ms. Bocanegra said her daughter is taking medication to help her relax and sleep and is undergoing counseling. “She has nightmares and she keeps calling for [the girls],” Ms. Bocanegra said. “It's not good.”

Since the fire, Tina often stays home, where her friends visit her. She made a T-shirt that lists her friends' names and states that they will always be missed. She said she plans to wear the shirt to remember them.

She is seeking solace from a teddy bear that was given to her by authorities at the fire scene.

Tina took flowers to a memorial in front of the debris.

Ms. Bocanegra said she has the same questions as the families that lost children. She also wants to know how the fire started.

“This shouldn't have happened,” she said.

Last week, Mr. Garza was charged with having pictures of young girls in various states of undress that were found in the fire debris and with inappropriately touching an 11-year-old girl three years ago. He is being held in the Lucas County jail in lieu of $150,000 bond.

Tina and her mother Alice said they were shocked by the allegations. Ms. Bocanegra said she wouldn't have let her daughter go to his house if she had known.



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