A fire broke out on third floor of an apartment building at 15 Dolores St. around 5:40 p.m. this evening. Multiple fire trucks rushed to the scene and the fire was extinguished by 6:10 p.m. It is still unclear what caused the fire, though neighbors and tenants said the fire followed an explosion. Neighbors also say the damaged unit may have been occupied by a drug dealer and attracted drug users who entered and left the building at all hours.

A next-door neighbor described hearing a loud explosion shortly before he witnessed smoke emanating from the building.

“I heard a loud ‘Boom.’ I went and looked and there was smoke everywhere. I came downstairs and didn’t know where it was coming from,” said the neighbor, who did not want to be identified. “I pulled the internal alarm. The smoke was just coming out of the windows and I went back inside to get everyone out.”

Photo by Joe Rivano Barros

Photo by Joe Rivano Barros

A tenant of the damaged building was inside when the fire started and said that he also heard the explosion.

“I was home and doing laundry and there was all this screaming in the street,” said the resident. “People on the street were screaming at me that there was a fire, to get out.”

“[The explosion] rocked the building – I mean I felt it. Then I walked outside to see what was up,” said a second tenant of the building. “All I saw was the smoke and fire.”

The first tenant immediately exited the building and said he saw “shattered glass” from the upstairs apartment, as well as fire and smoke. He also said that the burning unit has been vacant since last week, but that “people were coming in and out all week.”

“The people upstairs moved out just last Wednesday,” he said. A few days ago, the resident described “hearing a noise” and noticing that the lights were on in the empty upstairs apartment.

“The front door was locked but the back door was open,” he said, describing that it is possible to enter the apartment from the back entrance and that it is “easy to break into.” He said he confronted a group of “kids” sometime last week looking for the upstairs tenant, known only as “Ronnie,” and trying to get into the unit.

He told them they were breaking and entering and asked them to leave, but noticed that the lock on the upstairs backdoor was broken, and called the landlord to replace it, only to return later and find a replacement handle that had no locking mechanism. “There is no maintenance,” the tenant said.

Another tenant said Ronnie had been there all week and the he could tell because of his distinctive cologne. He said a separate neighbor had been hearing footsteps in the upstairs unit though it was supposed to be vacant.

Multiple neighbors said that for years they observed people coming and going from the topmost unit looking for the upstairs tenant, ostensibly to buy drugs from him. Tenants referred to him as a possible drug dealer and refused to give their names out of fear of retaliation.

“Up on top where the fire started used to live a group of drug addicts and drug dealers,” one neighbor said. “Every day you would hear whistles, people yelling ‘Ronnie!'”

According to this neighbor, the unit that caught fire was previously occupied by four tenants – a woman in her 80s, her daughter and son, both in their 50s, as well as the daughter’s son, identified only as Ronnie, who is said to be in his mid-30s.

Another resident also described poor maintenance and questionable activity in the building. “There were addicts that were hanging out in the staircase all the time, and there were people going in and out 24 hours a day. They would yell to the top window to try to get [Ronnie’s] attention.”

This tenant said that multiple bikes could be seen “every day,” clogging up the hallway.

“Yesterday morning, I saw someone who was waiting for Ronnie. He was passed out on the staircase inside the building,” the tenant said. “He had a $20 bill in one hand and a sandwich in the other.”

Battalion Chief Victor Wyrsch described the third floor unit as having “extensive” fire damage, and said there was some damage to the unit just below on the second floor.

“We did an aggressive interior assault and put out the fire, everybody was out,” said Wyrsch, adding that it was a “first alarm fire” and that the arson team is currently investigating possible causes. He said the fire-damaged unit was almost completely empty of furniture when firefighters entered, though some charred remains were being dragged out around 7 p.m.

Residents were told they could enter the building to check on their belongings, but that it would be a few hours before the firefighters cleared out.