Burned-out fire victims search for options
A 13-year-old boy who narrowly escaped one of the three major apartment fires this past week in San Francisco is now struggling alongside his family to find affordable housing after their rent-controlled apartment was destroyed in the blaze.
San Francisco Supervisor David Campos said at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday that roughly 100 San Franciscans were displaced following major fires in three neighborhoods over the last week, and that many are unable to find affordable new homes.
Campos said many families are living in temporary shelters and are now searching for an affordable home in a city where rent has reached record highs.
Campos said these families, whose rents stayed low due to rent control, might not be able to find a place to live in San Francisco.
Alessandro Gonzalez, a 13-year-old boy who was home alone when the fire started at his building at the intersection of 22nd and Mission streets last Wednesday evening, managed to escape the fire, but his family now faces homelessness.
Campos said the fire alarms in the building did not sound, but that when the boy heard loud voices outside, he had the good judgment to call 911.
Fire dispatchers told him that there was indeed a fire in his building and that he needed to evacuate immediately.
When the boy tried to open the window, however, it wouldn’t open, Campos said.
So the boy broke the window pane, and carrying his family dog “Buddy,” climbed down from the third floor to the second floor, at which point he was able to jump to the firefighters below, according to Campos.
The Board of Supervisors and San Francisco fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White recognized Alessandro Tuesday for his courage.
Hayes-White said Alessandro acted with great valor and trusted his instincts. She even encouraged the boy to consider a career in firefighting.
Alessandro said Tuesday in front of the Board of Supervisors and the public that he was thankful for the donations coming in from the community and for the bravery exhibited everyday by San Francisco police officers and firefighters.
He said the community has generously donated clothing and provided his family with a temporary shelter where they are staying until they can find a new home.
Alessandro said of the community’s generosity:
“We really need it now.”
Alessandro thanked God for providing his family with food and for keeping them safe.
Alessandro’s 18-year-old sister, Eyra Gonzalez, who is a freshman at the University of California at Santa Cruz came home from college to be with her family at the shelter following the fire.
She said her parents moved into the apartment about a decade ago and, thanks to rent control, were paying only about $1,100 per month for a two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the Mission District.
She said it is proving very difficult to find housing, and that she knows two additional apartment fires also displaced dozens of other San Francisco families.
Prior to the fire, Eyra and Alessandro Gonzalez’s mother worked at Antojitos Salvadoreños Aminta, a Salvadorean restaurant located on the ground floor of their building. As a result of the fire, the restaurant closed and their mother is now unemployed.
Their father still has his job installing hardwood flooring, but is taking a break to help the family find housing.
Eyra Gonzalez said her family, who come from El Salvador, lost their foreign passports in the fire and have had to get new passports.
While Alessandro escaped the four-alarm fire at the Mission apartment building, a 40-year-old man, also from El Salvador, died in the blaze and six others were injured.
San Francisco resident Mauricio Orellana was the only person who died in the fire, according to the medical examiner’s office.
Campos said Mission District residents have said Orellana was a kind, friendly, and selfless person who moved from El Salvador to San Francisco about 12 years ago.
Orellana continued to support his family back in El Salvador after moving to San Francisco, Campos said.
Orellana was involved in a local church and there has been a fund established to send his body back to El Salvador for burial, according to Campos.
Orellana’s niece, Sandra Orellana, created a memorial page on GoFundMe.com to raise money for her uncle’s funeral and burial, saying her family was having difficulty affording the expenses.
“He was so young no one could have expected this,” she wrote on the online fundraising site at http://www.gofundme.com/l62rvo.
San Francisco fire spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said the property where Orellana died consisted of more than 40 apartments, offices and businesses.
The fire was reported around 6:45 p.m. Wednesday and first responders arrived at the building to find flames shooting from its side.
Six people were transported to the hospital from the fire, including a firefighter who suffered dehydration and five civilians who suffered minor to moderate injuries, fire officials said.
Orellana was taken from the building and emergency crews rendered aid, but he ultimately died at the scene, police said.
Talmadge said the building was all but completely destroyed. The building sustained an estimated $4.5 million in damage along with $4 million in damage to its contents.
She said the first two floors of the three-story building contained businesses and offices while the entire top floor contained apartments.
While the cause of the fire remains under investigation and could take weeks to determine, police and fire officials said that it does not appear foul play or arson played a factor in the fire.
“Investigators received multiple reports that the residents had no advanced warning from an alarm system,” San Francisco fire spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said. “There were also multiple reports that some of the fire escapes were either blocked or locked, so the investigators are going to look into those reports.”
A fire inspector visited the building on Thursday and verified that the certifications for the fire alarm and fire extinguishers are in fact still current, Talmadge said.
Fire department records indicate that between 2009 and 2012 officials have received roughly one complaint per year regarding items, including furniture and an awning, blocking the fire escapes at that building. All of those issues were abated, however, Talmadge said.
However, fire officials said investigators are also looking into reports from residents that fire alarms in the building malfunctioned, complicating evacuations.
Campos said residents reported that they had difficulty finding working emergency exits as well as fire extinguishers.
Campos said the city must review procedures regarding building code inspections in order “to do whatever is necessary to prevent other deaths.”
Two neighboring buildings also sustained minor damage in the blaze. One building in the 2500 block of Mission Street sustained about $100,000 in water damage while another building in the 3200 block of 22nd Street sustained about $15,000 in minor structural damage, according to Talmadge.
At least 40 residents of the building stayed at an American Red Cross shelter on the City College of San Francisco campus at 22nd and Bartlett streets following the fire, according to police.
The next night, another major fire occurred in a multi-story apartment building in downtown San Francisco, injuring two people and displacing roughly 23 more.
According to Talmadge, the fire was reported in the 600 block of Hyde Street near Geary Boulevard around 11:30 p.m. Thursday.
One of the injured victims in the Hyde Street fire may have jumped from the building to escape.
Talmadge could not specify which floor the victim might have jumped from, but said the victim was found injured on the ground near the building.
On Saturday afternoon another major fire was reported, this one in San Francisco’s Alamo Square neighborhood, Talmadge said.
Talmadge said fire crews responded to a report of a fire shortly before 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the 1500 block of McAllister Street near Scott Street, located about a block north of Alamo Square Park.
A firefighter who was battling the blaze was transported to a hospital with minor injuries resulting from smoke inhalation. The firefighter has recovered and no other injuries have been reported, Talmadge said.
The blaze was under control shortly after 2:30 p.m., according to a fire dispatcher.
Talmadge said the cause of the fire remains under investigation, but that it does not appear suspicious.
She said the main property exposed to the fire sustained an estimated $500,000 in damage to the building and $100,000 in damage to its contents.
A nearby building on Scott Street also exposed to the blaze sustained $150,000 in structural damage and $50,000 in damage to its contents. A third building on McAllister Street sustained $75,000 in structural damage and content damage of $20,000, Talmadge said.
The three separate fires, which are not considered suspicious in nature, caused more than $11.5 million in estimated damage, according to San Francisco fire spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge.
Following the fires, the Francisco Fire Department released a list of fire prevention tips for San Franciscans.
Fire officials urged residents not to leave food on the stove or in the oven unattended. Residents should also remember not to leave burning candles unattended or burning while sleeping.
Residents are urged to avoid overloading extension cords and outlets and should always unplug small appliances when not in use.
Fire officials advised residents not to place anything combustible on or near a heater or heat source and to never disconnect or remove smoke detectors, as it could be a matter of life or death.