Aminta Calderón and her family were all working in Antojitos Salvadoreños Aminta, their ground-floor restaurant at 22nd and Mission, on Wednesday evening when they realized something was amiss, looked outside and saw “the fire coming out” of the floors above. Over the next few hours, she and her family watched as firefighters battled the blaze that left their small restaurant – one that has supported her and her extended family back in El Salvador for 11 years – too damaged to reopen soon.
On Thursday morning Calderón and her family arrived to rescue some papers and other belongings. “It’s flooded in there. It’s a mess, everything on the top is falling off,” she said in Spanish after putting on a hard hat and being led inside by officials.
Her son-in-law, Wilfredo Orellano, 37, had already been in touch with their insurance company, but expected little immediate relief.
“We depend on this (our business) and our families in El Salvador depend on it too, we send remittances,” said Orellano, who just a week ago sent money to his dad. Now, he worries about the months ahead without a business.
“We have spent most of our time here,” said Orellano about his children, who usually come to the family restaurant after school. “It’s like their second home.”
Like so many residents and business owners from the building at 22nd and Mission that was devastated in Wednesday’s four-alarm fire Calderón tried to salvage what she could. Even those not allowed to enter the building hung around hoping for the chance to go in or to get advice from the city officials on the scene such as Francis Christian Chan, with the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, who was there to sign businesses up for aid.
Many spoke with Mission Local about the previous evening. The fire that broke out at around 6:45 p.m seemed to catch them all unawares, and few had any time to leave with more than the clothes on their backs. No one mentioned hearing an alarm. Instead, it was often the incoming sirens or a rush of smoke that stirred them into panicked action.
Hawk Lou, the owner of the building who was often on site and working at the building, showed Mission Local an inspection from January , 28, 2014 in which the building passed a fire and alarm safety inspection.
“There is only a sprinkler system in the basement,” he wrote responding to questions about the sprinkler system. “This is a 108 year old building and that was the code then. As you can see from the fire marshal report and receipt, everything was maintained and in working condition.”
On Thursday morning, the few people allowed into the building were those with ground-floor establishments in the porticoed Mission Market–Latino-American restaurants, a butcher shop, a fish and poultry shop, hair salons, clothing shops, a travel agency, a taqueria, a liquor store and a flower shop. The owners, fitted with hard hats and plastic bags, were allowed inside for ten minutes. Officials, assessing the extensive smoke and water damage, determined that it was unsafe, and halted the visits, which may resume today.
On the second floor, home to the offices of doctors, dentists, an immigration lawyer, accountants, acupuncture, a chiropractor, a solar energy company as well as Mission Local, inspectors decided that it was too dangerous to visit because the power was still on amid abundant water. Some visits will be permitted today afterthe power is shut off.
The 54 residents who lived on the third floor, where officials believe the fire started, have no immediate opportunity to visit their homes; the floor is believed to be structurally unsound and impossible to navigate. Nevertheless, the third-floor residents, predominantly Latino immigrants who lived there with their families, children and pets, showed up on Thursday on the off-chance that they would be allowed to go in.
Marta Medrano and her cousins Sandra and Yareni Corso, who have lived in Apartment 302 for eight years, recalled hearing someone knocking on their door on Wednesday evening. They said that, when they opened it their door, smoke poured in and they rushed to the second floor yelling for help.
Firefighters heard them and came to their rescue. “They put a ladder and they took us down,” said Medrano, who is originally from Guatemala and spent Wednesday night at a Holiday Inn downtown. “I had just finished doing laundry, I went to buy something and came back. After 15 minutes, there was a fire.”
Sandra Corso, her cousin, said of the Holiday Inn, “We were comfortable, it was fancy. They called a cab and they gave us food, drinks and everything.”
The two women, who work as caregivers, were given Thursday off. “They told us we have to come back to work tomorrow,” one said with a half-smile.
María García, the owner of Ria’s Hair Salon on the ground floor for the past five years, was not at her salon when the fire broke out. “Someone let me know and then I came over here,” said García.
“Right now I am going in and I will try to see what I can rescue,” she said as she put on her hardhat and took the big black plastic bags provided to collect her belongings.
Claudia Zapata, an immigration lawyer, who has worked out of a second floor office for the past three years, said she left Wednesday at 6 p.m. “I started getting messages,” she said. “The first one I got I thought it was a joke, then everyone I know from Revolution Cafe started texting me.”
Zapata was waiting outside the building this morning, also hoping to get in and get CDs, thumb drives and her clients’ paperwork. For now, she plans to work from the nearby Revolution Cafe. “This place is gone,” she said. “We had great location.”
After the fire on Wednesday night, many of the residents spoke with Mission Local about the terror of that evening.
Marcela Cordova, who lived with her two children in Apartment 316, was inside with her daughter, Mayra Alvarez, 17, when they heard the sirens and then saw fire trucks arriving.
“I opened the door and there was smoke and it was pitch black and I couldn’t breathe or open my eyes so I slammed the door, went to the window and I couldn’t jump out the window because it has metal bars,” she said. “I opened the door, and with my phone’s flashlight I went outside yelling ‘somebody help me.’ I had my daughter with me, I don’t think I screamed for that long when a firefighter came over.”
Her daughter, Mayra, has asthma and had to return quickly to the apartment because she couldn’t breathe. Cordova returned to get her and the firefighter took them out the exit on 22nd Street. “We used the hose to guide us because we couldn’t see anything,” she said. They spent Wednesday night at the home of her sister, María Elena Cordova, who is also a Mission resident.
Eugenia Aldama and her husband, Humberto López, have lived in Apartment 304 since 1972.
When they learned the building was on fire, said Aldama, “My husband went to open the door, but had to close it because the fire was really strong.” They climbed out of their window and down the fire escape ladder.
Aldama was taken to the hospital for a few hours to recover from the frenzy, then spent the night with her husband and neighbors in a room at City College set up by the Red Cross with drink, snacks and blankets for the fire victims. She suffers from epilepsy and was worried because she didn’t have her medication with her, but a Red Cross worker gave her a card so she could buy it from a 24-hour Walgreens.
It wasn’t until 5 a.m. on Thursday that they were able to collapse on a bed at their nephew’s place in Daly City. Then today, they got up early hoping to retrieve some of their belongings. They had left their apartment in a rush, unable to grab any coats or valuables.
“I had a leather coat that I really love, it’s really warm, and a suit for my husband. I had just spent $175 on vitamins and my medicine for epilepsy,” she said. “But we have no clothes now.”
Juan Alberto Lara and Felipe Reyes were inside Apartment 305 at the time of the fire. “We realized there was a fire because of the noise, a little girl yelling desperately, and when we opened the door we saw everything burning. We took the emergency stairs and went out through the Mission exit,” said Reyes, wrapped in a Red Cross blanket while he rested late Wednesday at City College.
His roommate, Lara, was finally able to lie down at 4 a.m. on Thursday, after the Red Cross gave him a voucher to use at a hotel downtown.
José Valle, who works as a bartender at Cava 22 across the street from the fire, also helps his father, Ramón Valle, and his uncle, Samuel Valle, at the taqueria La Alteña. It has an entrance on Mission Street and another one through the Mission Market. This morning, José arrived to see if he could salvage some of their belongings. Valle said he was devastated to have lost everything in his business as well as personal belongings -such as his camera. When Valle and his father went in, the restaurant was covered in three feet of water. Valle was one of the few people that were allowed into the first floor. La Alteña was another one of the dozens of family businesses affected by the fire.
Alessandro Gonzalez, 13, who lived in Apartment 312, over the last 24 hours has become the photogenic face of the fire. He acted quickly when the fire broke out, grabbing his dog, Buddy, and heading to the second floor. He broke the window above the clothing business Kosa Bella and jumped out holding his dog in his arms. The owners from Kosa Bella helped him climb down. Sadly, he had a bunny which he had to leave behind.