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BAY AREA QUAKE : Fire Sweeps Luxury Flats in Posh Marina District

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A fire spawned by Tuesday’s killer earthquake blow-torched through at least two luxury apartment buildings in San Francisco’s stylish Marina District, raging out of control for nearly four hours and prompting fears of many deaths amid the rubble.

At least three people were cofirmed dead, including one in a nearby building. The unidentified man was pinned in debris and died while firefighters tried frantically to cut him free with a chain saw, according to San Francisco paramedic David Drabble.

Asked whether more people might have died, paramedic Pete Howes said: “Perhaps. We have to go rooting in there to find out how many. Perhaps they are still alive.”

The Marina inferno was among the more visible signs of calamity that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the mammoth temblor, which struck a wide swath of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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The smoke and flames from the fire were seen for miles, and thousands of passers-by stopped on nearby streets to watch the buildings burn.

“This is a very toxic fire, please move away!” yelled one man who said he was an official of the U.S. Interior Department. “This is very, very toxic.”

With power outages throughout the city, the fire cast an eerie glow over Divisadero and Beach streets, an upscale area located about a mile west of famous Fisherman’s Wharf and only a few blocks from some other tourist meccas as the Presidio, Aquatic Park and the Palace of Fine Arts.

The earthquake caused three buildings on two blocks of the Marina District to collapse.

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Two apartment buildings on the northwest corner of Divisadero and Beach became engulfed in flames about 20 minutes after the earthquake struck, nearby residents said.

One of the buildings “pancaked,” said Lee Phillips, an architect who works in her home, up the street from the fire scene. Phillips said that 20 minutes after the quake she heard sirens from ambulances racing to the scene, then she noticed smoke begin to spill out of the windows of the collapsed building, and then flames erupted.

About one-third of the block was destroyed by the fire.

When the earthquake occurred, Phillips said, she had trouble just scrambling outside.

“I couldn’t walk down the hallway,” she said. “I fell down five times.” The brick facade of her building fell into the street.

An elderly woman who lives five doors down from the burning buildings said, “It collapsed--totally collapsed.” The woman, who asked not to be identified, added: “I was in such a state of shock. It’s incredible. It was a nightmare.”

Although the exact cause of the fire was not immediately known, the smell of natural gas wafted through the neighborhood.

Directly across the street from the fire, another four-story apartment building tumbled into the middle of the street--the top floor suddenly becoming the ground floor. The wood and stucco building was tilted at an angle and there was no telling whether anyone was left alive inside.

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About a block east of the fire, at North Point and Scott streets, the earthquake instantly transformed yet another four-story apartment building into a one-story structure.

William Dempsey, who lives nearby, said he was in his apartment relaxing in front of his television, watching the World Series game and having a beer when the temblor hit.

After the shaking subsided, Dempsey said he rushed into the street, as did his neighbors. He said he tried to break the fire alarm box but it didn’t work, so they went up the street and broke another fire box--and it didn’t work either.

Dempsey said the neighbors ran to the building that had collapsed.

“We didn’t hear any sounds coming out,” Dempsey recalled as he stood across the street, viewing the destruction. He said one of his neighbors managed to climb into the top floor, which was now near street level, but he found no one there.

A police officer who stood guard outside the collapsed building said that there were no confirmed fatalities there, but that authorities would not search the apartments until the morning.

Throughout the Marina District, the brick facades of fashionable buildings were scattered on streets. Several building sported large cracks--some 6 inches in width. Sidewalks were buckled, resembling miniature mountain ranges.

“My apartment is a disaster,” said David Doiron, who said he was asleep on his couch when the quake struck. “I’m not going back in until we get someone to check the building” and make sure it’s structurally sound. Everything is down. Plaster is off the walls. Things are off the shelves.”

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As he made his comments, Doiron was holding a cat. The cat’s head was buried deep into Doiron’s lap.

Morain reported from San Francisco; Welkos reported from Los Angeles.


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