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.
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.
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.