Shortly before 10 a.m. last Sunday, Angelina Gamez was getting ready to go to the noon mass at St. Charles Church. Breakfast over, she was headed to the shower when she looked toward her kitchen window and saw flames.
“I started running and screaming, “Fire, fire,” said the 81-year-old Gamez. “The only thing I could grab was a box that had my passport and my citizenship [certificate.] I left everything behind.”
From the street below, she watched as the flames destroyed her home of 43 years — the only one she had known since leaving Nicaragua. In the end, the four-alarm fire on May 6 that began at 101-109 Duboce Ave., where Gamez lived, quickly spread to the adjacent building at 204-208 Valencia St. It left six people injured and 41 homeless. Gamez’ building, built in 1911, was a total loss.
A group of 40 residents packed a community meeting on Thursday afternoon at the nearby Friends School, formerly the Levi Strauss factory, where Gamez once worked. There, members of McCoppin Neighborhood Watch and the Friends School, and representatives from the Bahai Center, began coordinating efforts to help those displaced by the fire.
Rehabilitating the buildings could take years, and finding housing for tenants in the meantime will be extremely difficult in San Francisco’s tight rental market, said Donna Logan, the disaster service chair for the Bay Area chapter of the American Red Cross.
Gamez wasn’t at the meeting, but in a phone call she recalled her home, apartment 101, where she lived alone for 13 years after her husband died. The place was more than just housing – it was her source of pride and a symbol of independence.
“That was my happiness, having that beautiful home, but what can you do?” she said. “Maybe the lord had this planned for me, that I lose my beautiful apartment, but he spared my life.”
Gamez spent a lifetime decorating her apartment and speaks about it like a teenager moving out for the first time. She can recall every detail — the living room carpet with the matching curtains, the large mirror hung against the chimney, the glass kitchen table, the flower vases. But the one object she laments losing the most is the answering machine.
It was a typical message: “We can’t get to the phone right now, please leave your number and address and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
But it was bilingual, with the voice of her late husband, Saturnino Gamez, in English and hers in Spanish.
“I couldn’t speak English very well,” she said in Spanish.
She sometimes let phone calls go to voicemail just so she could hear his voice again, she said.
Over the years the cassette got scratched, so she had someone make a duplicate.
“I kept [the duplicate] in my room because I never thought there would be a fire,” she said. “My mistake was not giving it to someone. It hurt a lot.”
She met her husband in Nicaragua and they married a year later. After he lost his job in a bank, he left for the United States and then arranged for her to meet him in San Francisco.
“He was very educated, very cultured.” she said. “He would stand up when I sat down at the table, he would open the car door for me — he was a complete gentleman.”
They found a home at the corner of Duboce Avenue and Valencia Street. Outside her kitchen window she could see the Levi Strauss factory.
“I had a friend who worked there, I told her, ‘Look, I just came from Nicaragua and I want to work. I don’t know how to use the machine but I swear to you that I can learn fast.” Gamez walked to the factory, with heels on, to meet the manager. He tested her skills with a stitching machine.
She thought she failed.
“I made a good impression on the manager. If only he knew that I never worked a machine in my life.” She went on to work at Levi’s for 31 years before retiring at age 63 to care for her husband, who was dying of prostate cancer.
After her husband died in 1998, two of Gamez’ nephews, one in Colorado and one in Texas, asked her to move in with them and their families.
Gamez, who has no children, said she told them, “You are never going to take me out of San Pancho, never.”
That wasn’t the first time she had declined to move. When she was 43, her husband wanted to buy her a home “in the avenues.”
“I didn’t want to leave my house, I was close to work, I had the joy of paying little rent, and so I felt really comfortable,” she said. “Now with everything that’s happened to me I regret it.”
The cause and origin of the fire are still under investigation, though fire officials don’t suspect foul play. Five of the firefighters who were injured after a staircase collapsed have since returned to work, said Division 3 Chief Matthew McNaughton.
Currently the city is trying to place some of the tenants in public housing at Treasure Island, where some rooms are available. They are also trying to find landlords who are willing to participate in the Good Samaritan Rental program, which allows landlords to offer discounted rentals to victims for up to one year without committing to a long-term rental and its benefits.
“I’ve put calls out to the community, I got two responses so far from Good Samaritans, unfortunately I haven’t been able to match up the tenants,” said Benjamin Amyes, the city’s emergency response coordinator. “If anyone knows any housing options out there, I am all ears.”
Meanwhile, the owner of the building on Duboce Avenue and of Fred’s Liquor store, Fuad Ateyeh, said he will rebuild the building he bought 12 years ago. Legally landlords must charge returning tenants their pre-fire rental rates, but Ateyeh said he would would do so anyway, because he considers his tenants family.
“Freddy is a great person, a gentlemen,” Gamez said. “He is very nice to me despite the fact that he had tenants who paid more.”
Gamez also did her part to be a good tenant, she said. She kept flowers in the hallway and cleaned the common areas when possible.
She lives on the small pension she earned while working at Levi Strauss.
Amyes said he is working with the housing authority to place Gamez somewhere until her apartment is rehabilitated.
“I wasn’t afraid to live alone, but now I feel terrible and scared about living somewhere else,” Gamez said.
She is currently living with a friend in the Excelsior District. They’ve been very supportive and have even bought her a new wardrobe.
On Thursday afternoon, Ateyeh — or, as she likes to call him, Freddy — told her of his plans to rebuild and bring her back.
“My afternoon instantly got better after hearing from Freddy that I could come back,” she said.” Even if it’s smoke, I feel happy because at least I have an illusion.”