A neighbor pulled a 2-year-old girl from a smoke-filled apartment just before flames leapt out the front window Thursday afternoon.
Julie Xiong was sleeping on her couch when her 3-year-old son woke her up just after 1 p.m. and told her the apartment was on fire. A toy-filled area next to a computer in a bedroom was on fire and the apartment was quickly filling with smoke, she said.
Grabbing her phone and her son, Matthew, Xiong looked for her daughter, who had been next to her on the couch. The smoke was too thick to see or breathe, so she ran from the second-floor apartment, screaming for help.
David Braga, 32, who lives in an adjacent complex, happened to be walking by when he saw the smoke and heard Xiong screaming, neighbors said. Xiong's 2-year-old, Michelle, could be heard crying inside the apartment.
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Braga ran into the building and, after a few minutes, emerged with Michelle, Xiong said. He collapsed on the lawn near the building and was later taken to an area hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, fire officials said.
The two-alarm fire destroyed Xiong's unit at Oak Terrace Apartments, 1019 Loughborough Drive, before climbing into the attic, which spans the length of the building.
Xiong stood in the parking lot nearby, tears streaking down her soot-smudged face, answering questions as a paramedic pressed a stethoscope to her 2-year-old's chest.
"It was too smoky," she said, recalling trying to find Michelle in the haze. "I was happy that they helped me get my daughter out."
The family was taken to Mercy Medical Center Merced to be examined as a precaution.
Merced Fire Division Chief Mike McLaughlin said the fire invading the attic forced firefighters to break through the ceilings of some of the other upstairs units to ensure the blaze was completely extinguished.
Firefighters believe the blaze was caused by an electrical malfunction in the bedroom. The destruction of the bedroom, however, made it difficult to determine what might have happened to start it, he said.
Most of the damage was confined to Xiong's apartment, but other apartments in the eight-unit building had smoke in them and one unit below had water damage, McLaughlin said. The building has been deemed unsafe to inhabit because the electrical and gas lines for the building run through the damaged attic.
The Merced County Housing Authority owns the property and was working Thursday night to make sure all tenants had a place to go, McLaughlin said. The blaze did $125,000 damage to the property and $25,000 damage to contents, he estimated.
Reporter Amy Starnes can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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