Fire Traps, Kills San Jose, California Woman in Wheelchair

Black smoke poured from a burning West San Jose apartment Sunday morning and into Sharon Aster's throat as she called to her friend trapped inside.

''I'm going to get you out! I'm going to get you!'' Aster said she shouted, fumbling in the smoke to try to open the door to unit number 3.

Another neighbor grabbed Aster's arm and pulled her away from the apartment, where 15-foot flames began rolling out of the garage and onto the rooftop of the rear triplex on Teresi Court.

Firefighters were called at 11:49 a.m. Five surrounding units were evacuated. At 12:24 p.m., fire crews declared the single-alarm blaze under control. But when the smoke cleared, San Jose fire Capt. Allison Cabral said firefighters found a 51-year-old woman in a wheelchair inside. Aster's friend couldn't escape the flames.

Authorities Sunday night withheld the victim's name, but neighbors and friends identified her as Teresa Habenicht.

Habenicht, a former dental assistant, had suffered a stroke about five years ago that left her in a wheelchair. She lived with her husband, Tom, in the single-story unit.

Her husband had left the apartment to buy groceries Sunday morning before the fire broke out, Cabral said. When he returned, fire engines were crowded outside his home. Aster said she told firefighters that there was a woman in a wheelchair still inside. Cabral said firefighters tried to rescue the woman, but the unit was ''fully engulfed.''

Those who knew Habenicht spoke of her strength of character and kindness. She accepted Aster, her caretaker, as a member of her family.

''She was a very good person, very sweet,'' Aster said. ''I loved her.''

Hours after the fire, relatives combed the charred apartment and fire officials continued to search for clues to the fatal fire.

A neighbor walked up to Aster, holding a small black-and-white photo of an attractive, dark-haired woman.

''This is Teresa,'' Aster told the man. ''Her house is gone. She's gone.''

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