Mauricio Orellana, the 38-year-old who died in the fire that displaced 54 residents and dozens of businesses, worked at night and was resting and listening to music when the fire broke out, according to multiple accounts from roommates and neighbors.
The blaze started at around 6:48 p.m. on Wednesday with many residents discovering the building on fire only after hearing incoming sirens or desperate yelling and knocking on their doors. Most exited through the stairs, and others went out the fire escapes. Firemen had to rescue six people from the fire escapes and five others from inside.
When the firefighters found Orellana he had already suffered a heart attack and although they tried to resuscitate him after pulling him out of the building, he died at the scene of the fire.
“A week before, he bought some really expensive headphones. He was really happy,” said Felipe Reyes, a neighbor, who often ran into him on 22nd Street and ate pupusas with him from one of the businesses also destroyed in the fire. “He liked listening to Christian music and hip-hop.”
Reyes said that at Christmas, Orellana gave him a jacket, saying with a smile on his face, “Here’s your Christmas, don’t ask me for anything else.”
Neighbors said the friend they sometimes called El Pelón or baldie because of his very short hair, loved having caldo de res or beef soup on Sundays at La Corneta, and was a fan of gadgets, music and clothes. “He was a very good customer at Macy’s,” said Reyes.
“I miss him because he was very cheerful,” said Humberto López, who said he ran into Orellana the day before the fire at a laundromat just a block away. Lopez’s wife, Aldama was with him. “He told me he needed to lose weight,” she said. “I told him it was important because he needed to think about his cholesterol and he said yes, that’s true and then with a smile asked me what cholesterol was.”
Orellana was in his late 20s when he moved to the United States, heading first to Los Angeles, where he has family. Then, he visited San Francisco. “He loved the atmosphere, energy. He fell in love with the city,” said his niece Sandra Orellana, over the phone.
He worked for a moving company in South San Francisco and used his free time in the morning to do chores. He often rested before heading to work for the night shift.
José Gonzalez, from Apt. 312, said that two days before the fire he was on his way back home with his son Alessandro when Orellana spotted them and invited them over to have a pupusa. “That day we ate together, he had gotten $600 in tips because he had a moving gig to San Diego and he said ‘Do you want to eat something? I got you’,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez also interacted with Orellana at the church Primera Iglesia Bautista, on 21st and South Van Ness. “He was very willing to help others, he was sincere, quiet but he had a good heart” he recalled of Orellana, who was single.
When Orellana first moved into the apartment building five years ago, he rented a room in 303 with Santos Ortiz, who is also from Orellana’s hometown in the capital of El Salvador. “We would go to church together, he was calm, a really good person,” said Ortiz of his neighbor.
Orellana had family scattered around Chicago and Los Angeles, but also in Concord and Pittsburg. His niece Sandra Orellana said his uncle would visit whenever he got a chance for a vacation, which was not too often, but would make most of the time he had with them.
“I always loved him very much, he always checked on me and stayed in touch with everybody. I want to do what I can to give him a proper burial. He was a wonderful person,” said Sandra over the phone.
Sandra Orellana and Fernando Artiga –Orellana’s cousin– are fundraising to be able to take the body to El Salvador, where part of his family still lives.
“He came here with just a few dollars that we gave him in El Salvador,” said Artiga, Orellana’s cousin, who put together some money about 14 years ago when Mauricio wanted to come to the United States. “He was a role model. He had no vice, he was religious – Christian, a good person and always available. It wasn’t difficult for him to make friends at all,” said Artiga over the phone.
On the day they ran into him at the laundry Aldama and López recalled that before they said goodbye, Orellana said “let’s text.” But the older couple said they were not any good with texting. “He replied that it was fine and pointing to the sky with a smile said, we’ll meet up there if we don’t talk soon again.”
Fernando Artiga has set up a GoFundMe campaign to cover the costs associated with the funeral home and bringing his cousin’s body back to his home country, El Salvador.