San Francisco fire: 'Fortunate to have just one fatality,' chief says

With Mayor Ed Lee by her side, San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White offered a detailed account Thursday of a massive Mission District blaze Wednesday evening that left one person dead, injured five and displaced nearly five dozen residents and as many as 20 small businesses.

Police said late Wednesday that the fire did not appear to be intentionally set, but Hayes-White stressed that the cause remains under investigation, along with unverified reports from numerous witnesses that no alarms sounded.


Residents attempting to flee the four-alarm fire, which began about 6:45 p.m., also have reported that their access to some fire escapes was blocked or otherwise hampered.

"We're looking at the sprinkler system and whether there were working adequate alarms," said Hayes-White, flanked by the mayor and city agency heads who have begun to probe the building's safety and find alternate shelter for those displaced. She said some residents described the building as "maze-like" as they sought an exit route.

When firefighters arrived, seven people needed to be rescued from third-floor fire escapes on the Mission Street side of the aging building and seven more were outside in need of assistance on the 22nd Street side, she added.

Given that the fire started when residents were not sleeping, "we were concerned about the number of rescues," she said. "I'll be interested in the results of our fire investigation."

Tom Hui, the director of the department of building inspection, said it appeared the building had no violations during a routine inspection two years ago but he said staff members had to further review the records.

The building is located in the heart of San Francisco's multicultural Mission District, with residences on the second and third floors that were home to 54 people, nine of them children. The ground floor and second floor host a number of businesses, including a taqueria, a fast food restaurant, and the offices of Mission Local, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to covering the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

The person who died -- described only as an adult male in his 30s or 40s -- was found by firefighters in a third-floor residence. Of the five injured, four were occupants who suffered "mild to moderate" injuries, Hayes-White said, and the fifth was a firefighter treated and released for dehydration. A sixth person was evaluated at the scene but declined transport.

"Given the amount of fire that we had last night we were very fortunate to have just one fatality," she said.

A new 114-condo development adjacent to the burned structure was not damaged. Only about a dozen of its units are occupied so far.

Mayor Lee thanked firefighters and said his attention "now turns very squarely on the residents, on the businesses that are here and are displaced."

The city implemented a "good Samaritan" law when Lee took office that is intended to ensure that displaced residents find temporary housing for the same price in empty developments or apartments throughout the city.

In a glimmer of good news, a Chihuahua was discovered on the gutted third floor of the building at 3 a.m. The dog had a tag and was reunited with its owners, "who lost everything," Hayes-White said.

They were staying at a Red Cross shelter nearby.

Twitter: @leeromney