Day After Fire, Dozens Look to Uncertain Future

Residents congregate accross the street of the building the once called home. Photo by Daniel Mondragón.

After firefighters worked all night, the blaze at 22nd and Mission that began Wednesday evening was finally contained by early this morning. The building continued to smolder into the late morning. And for the 54 residents and more than a dozen businesses displaced by the fire, the hard work has just begun.

The building has been red-tagged, and late this morning police were escorting some people through the ground floor. Officials said that preliminary estimates indicate that 54 residents, including nine children, lived in 18 third-floor units. All have been displaced. The second floor and ground floor contained numerous businesses, including Mission Market, Taqueria La Alteña, and Popeyes. Mission Local’s own office was on the second floor with more than a dozen others, including Sollega, a solar energy company, and other small professional offices of dentists, lawyers, and chiropractors.

According to Benjamin Amyes, a disaster response manager, all of the families have found temporary placement at hotels or in Red Cross Shelters. Amyes said he would spend the day “trying to figure out what to do about the housing issue.” Clearly, he said, it would be difficult to find rent-controlled apartments at the same rates that many of the residents had been paying.

The precise cause of the fire remained unknown, but there is some indication that residents had no advance warning. Although closed Thursday morning, Mission Street reopened to traffic by noon. The Thursday Mission Market, which resumed last week after its winter hiatus, cancelled for today.

“The fact that so many people were trapped—at least seven on the fire escape and five trapped inside—indicates that there was no early warning,” said fire department spokesperson Mindy Talmadge outside the building Thursday morning.

Talmadge explained that the floor did not collapse, though parts of the building’s exterior facade did crumble as the fire burned. If there was in fact no advance warning, “It is a good thing the fire wasn’t later in the evening,” said Talmadge. The loss of life ⎯ one adult died in the fire ⎯ would have been much greater, she said.

Many of the third-floor residents had lived there for years, some for decades. Maria Elena Cordova told Mission Local her sister Marcela had lived in one third-floor unit for several years with her husband, 17-year-old daughter, and son. Cordova said her 17-year-old niece cried thinking of the last photos she had of her grandmother, who died shortly before the four-alarm fire ripped through their home. Cordova said her sister’s family had lost everything.

A red-tag on the building. Photo by Cristiano Valli

A red-tag on the building. Photo by Cristiano Valli

As of Thursday morning, it appeared that the third floor, which endured the worst of the fire, is too structurally unsound for residents to go through their apartments to retrieve any of their belongings.

Thirteen-year-old Alessandro Gonzalez was able to escape the fire with his dog, Buddy, but a pet rabbit was left behind.

William Strawn, a representative from the Department of Public Inspection, told reporters that the building had been inspected a few years ago and had passed inspection. He was unsure as of Thursday morning’s briefing if there had been any recent complaints.

Hawk Lou, the building’s landlord who was well known in the building and was often there, attended the briefing and apologized repeatedly to residents and business owners. He said he is sensitive to their situations and encouraged anyone with questions or concerns to get in touch with him.

“From my heart, I’m sorry,” Lou said.

Mayor Ed Lee appeared on the scene and shared a brief message with reporters.

“We are treating it as a disaster; multiple agencies will be involved,” said Mayor Lee in a statement outside the charred building.

Photo this morning from the drone operated by  Eddie Codel.

Photo this morning from the drone operated by
Eddie Codel.

Amyes spoke with the mayor [see video above] and explained that many of the displaced were longtime residents with rent-controlled apartments. He added that finding new housing for them would be a significant challenge.

Fire chief Joanne Hayes White told reporters that emergency responders were at the scene within three minutes. Shortly after they arrived on the scene, an adult male was found within the building suffering from cardiac arrest. Responders could not resuscitate him, and he died at the scene.

Officials said investigators were looking at complaints that no alarms sounded, that sprinklers did not go off and that some of the fireescapes were difficult to get to because entrances were blocked.

Flames shot through the building quickly last night, and this morning the sidewalks were littered with charred trash. Proprietors and employees of the businesses in the building gathered outside trying to figure out what to do next, but, according to disaster coordinators, most will not be able to go through their offices until tomorrow, when the power to the building should be shut off.

Those gathered from the building’s commercial floors represented an entire spectrum of Mission life. Mission Market on the first floor housed pupusa makers and florists, fish sellers and jewelers, plus a taqueria, a convenience store, and Kosa Bella, the women’s clothes store. Every Tuesday, a line extended out the door for Popeyes’ special.

The owner of the travel agency Jet Travel has had an office in the building for 30 years. The first floor held the commissary for Wise Sons Delicatessen, stocked with pastrami, the various makings of babka, and more. There were dentists’ offices, acupuncturists, and immigration lawyers.

But Thursday afternoon, the main focus was on business owners who had perishables stored inside. Mission Market includes a butcher shop, a pupuseria, and a florist, among others, and Popeyes has its stock of chicken. Two by two, business owners lined up to be escorted into the first-floor premises by Department of Building Inspection engineers. They returned with black trash bags full of whatever they were given time to grab and, in some cases, with lockboxes and soggy file folders of their most important documents.

Shortly after 2 p.m., the Director of the Department of Building Inspections, Tom Hui, and Todd Rufo and Joaquin Torres from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development told anxious business owners and a few stray residents that there would be no further entrances into the building Thursday, because the power was still on.

Hui said four feet of standing water in the basement was blocking access to the transformer that must be tripped to cut off power to the building. The Department of Building Inspections, he said, would begin pumping out the water later in the day on Thursday, and would coordinate with PG&E to ensure power was turned off by sometime Friday morning. Hui told business owners they would probably be able to return to the building briefly to retrieve important belongings sometime Friday morning.

In the meantime, Torres and Rufo encouraged business owners to drop in for an information and guidance session to be held at the Mission PoliceStation community room between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. There, they said, proprietors could get help filling out necessary forms and discuss their individual immediate needs with the Office of Economic and Work Force Development.

Several residents of the completely destroyed third floor still held on to shreds of hope that they might retrieve some of their items ⎯ one woman said her family’s vehicle was parked on the street in front of the home and the key was just inside the apartment door; a teenage girl close to tears wanted to know if she might reclaim the remains of her pet rabbit ⎯ but although officials said they would do their best to address those cases individually, they were firm that nobody would be allowed to return to the third floor, for safety reasons.

The roof is destroyed and unstable, Hui said, requiring the owner to work with some engineers to figure out a way to stabilize it.

In the meantime, residents were told not to wait at the scene for access to their residences, and that they would be notified by the Human Services Agency and Red Cross if anything developed.

And so the crowd slowly dispersed. One fire, dozens of lives disrupted, displaced, and, in one case, departed.

Several fundraising efforts have been organized, you can read about them here. The San Francisco chapter of Red Cross also recommends making monetary donations here.

Part2FireChief from Mission Local on Vimeo.

Mayor Lee at the Mission Market Fire Site from Mission Local on Vimeo.

Mayor Ed Lee gives a statement. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

Mayor Ed Lee gives a statement. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

Popeyes at 22nd and Mission. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

Popeyes at 22nd and Mission. Photo by Lydia Chavez.

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8 Comments

  1. Laurel

    The SF Rent Ordinance is clear: All displaced tenants have the right to reoccupy any apartment that is rebuilt or repaired AT THE SAME RENT they were paying before the fire, even if the rebuilt building is significantly different. If there was a two bedroom apartment before, and there is a two bedroom apartment after, that displaced tenant has first right of refusal, and again, at their prior rent. I hope those folks know that!

    That said, I can’t imagine that building being repaired; it seemed like a total loss to me. Water damage is often worse than fire damage. The facade was quite lovely. When they build a 10 story code complex for the local millionaires on top of it 😉 I hope they at least renew that lovely facade.

    Every business, save Popeyes, was a small local, mom and pop type business. Those losses too, are heartbreaking for us locals.

  2. Laurel

    Autocorrect typo: I meant 10-story condo. (not code)

  3. My apartment building and the Edwardian next to it burned severely in 2011 and they have both been re-built, so there is hope for these folks, even if it takes 3 yrs to move back in. I said the same to a friend today about first right of refusal and how I hope the tenants are aware of that law. I wish the Tenants Union would do outreach to fire victims so they can become informed about their rights.

    Of course, not every landlord will decide to re-build.

    It’s a traumatic thing to go through and there is so much stress that comes with displacement and not knowing what’s next. It’s especially sad that it happened at a time and place where rents and evictions are at historic highs. I hope the community rallies for them like it did for us.

  4. Heidi-Jane

    A member of our community, Zack Crockett has organized a campaign for the victims of this tragedy. He writes: “I’ve started this fund to prove that, as a community, we care about our long-time residents. Let’s come together and support them in this time of need.” Please join us, your neighbors, in offering these people of our community a little hope in this difficult time: http://www.gofundme.com/l1hrw8

  5. Well, the owner was all over himself apologizing. From what the original story said, a guy was cooking and left the kitchen briefly to go to the bathroom. Could a kitchen fire have been the cause?

  6. Brock Hanson

    Granted, I’m not an expert – but something seems to have gone wrong in the way this fire was addressed. I wrote the below right after the event, and welcome any deeper insight.

    “What I do not understand, is why it took so ridiculously long to put any water whatsoever into the only apartment which seemed to be burning initially. I kept turning to the guy next to me (trucks, fire fighters, and hoses everywhere mind you) saying, if they don’t get some water in there, it’s going to burn into the roof space, and then they’re screwed The guy was a construction foreman, and he kept shaking his head. “I don’t know what the hell they’re doing – Get some water in the damn window for Christsake!” This went on, and on… until the fire walked down the front of the building, having long ago entered its ceiling and roof space.

    Was the thinking to avoid water damage to the dentist office directly below the the initial blaze, by not hosing the single burning apartment down? Then somebody really blew it – Big time. It made me angry to watch the whole building go up as seemed so unnecessary. Like a thrown play-off game, where “The Developers” win again.”

    I have heard no mention of what appeared to be a mistake in fire-fighter tactics in any news report. I witnessed the entire event up close with others who were also dumbfounded by how unconcerned the fire fighters seemed to be by the flames in the first apartment. I’d like to think the job was done correctly – it just didn’t seem like it, and the end result is another historic Mission icon destroyed, and core community displaced.

  7. Why would firefighters wait? Not enough pressure? The danger of a chemical fire such as a meth lab flashing over and causing more danger? An electrical fire shocking everybody in its path? Fire fighters come onto a scene not knowing anything but the fact that there’s a fire. They don’t know what kind it is, where the center is, or much else.

    I give the SFFD the benefit of the doubt because they are highly skilled and expert in fighting ancient wood tinderbox fires. Frankly, I’ve been amazed at how they can fight a fire in one Victorian in a row and not damage the ones on either side.

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