Residents Search Ruins of Hotel for Belongings

Times Staff Writer

Residents of the Sara Frances Hometel on Saturday began to salvage what personal belongings remained in their charred and water-soaked apartments, a day after a three-alarm fire ravaged the 95-year-old structure and caused an estimated $500,000 in damage.

Five people, including a firefighter and a city police officer, were treated for smoke inhalation and minor burns suffered during the blaze, which began shortly before 4 p.m. Friday. Fire officials Saturday credited the lack of major injuries to the safety precautions at the residential hotel.

"The building was far from a fire trap," said Capt. Larry Cooke of the San Diego Fire Department. "The sprinklers and fire alarms contributed to the fact that were no fatalities and few injuries."

Hotel owner Seymour Reichbart, however, said Saturday the building at 943 10th Ave. would probably be a total loss because of extensive water and smoke damage.

"We might be able to salvage half the building at most," he said. "But it might be financially unfeasible to sink money into a 100-year-old building."

Early Saturday morning, 30 to 40 of the residents gathered to assess yet another kind of damage when they searched water-soaked rooms for their personal belongings.

"The people are like a family here," said Peggy Conlin, the hotel's manager. "Everyone has been cooperating. But it is a terrible thing to happen just before Christmas."

In the cluttered lobby, where a small Christmas tree still stood, residents waited to be escorted, one at a time, to their rooms.

Residents emerged with small suitcases, paper bags filled with clothes and pictures, small refrigerators. Sometimes they returned empty-handed.

The North Park Lions Club arrived at the hotel to distribute clothing which had been "intended for street people." The American Red Cross had also handed out food vouchers and was helping some of the residents find shelter.

Eileen Quinn, 31, of Claremont, waited as her father Vincent, 58, rummaged through apartment 109 for odds and ends that remained.

Vincent Quinn was taken to the UCSD Medical Center on Friday night and treated for smoke inhalation. "I heard about the fire on the news and immediately began calling everywhere looking for him," Eileen Quinn said. "We tried to find him all night, but only early this morning did we think to call the Red Cross. They were able to locate him . . . for us. It was real scary when I first heard the news, cause you never know what's really going on on TV, but he has the luck of the Irish--he always comes through."

The 150 people who lived in the hotel, many of them elderly and poor, were housed Friday night at the City of Angels Mission, only two blocks away at 12th Avenue and Broadway. Reichbart also owns that building and has agreed to let the mission use the building until Dec. 31.

On Saturday, Reichbart said the residents displaced from the Sara Frances will be allowed to stay at the second building permanently. Although the city has cited the structure at 12th and Broadway for zoning violations, Reichbart said its upper floors will be renovated and brought up to code to accommodate former Sara Frances residents.

"We are going to set it up," Reichbart said. "The building is almost within city codes now. The people will be able to stay here. We're gong to turn it into the Sara Frances II. We aren't giving up."

Meanwhile, Reginald Milton Hughes, 45, a Sara Frances resident who lived in apartment 306, remained in county jail Saturday in lieu of $10,000 bond after he was arrested and charged Friday night with suspicion of recklessly starting the fire.

Investigators with the Metro Arson Strike team said the fire was started because Hughes was smoking in bed. They said there have been two previous incidents in recent months in which a fire started in Hughes' room.

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