SAN FRANCISCO --
More than one hundred people were forced from their homes Wednesday night after a massive four-alarm fire destroyed an apartment building in the South of Market area of San Francisco.
The fire started around 5:30 p.m. in a residential hotel on Folsom Street between Sixth and Seventh. The flames also damaged other buildings nearby at the corner of Russ Street.
The fire was contained at 7:30 p.m., but dozens of firefighters remain on the scene going through the burned buildings looking for hot spots. The blaze caused some anxious moments, especially after one firefighter briefly went missing.
The flames erupted in a 48-unit apartment building at 1044 Folsom about a block from the Hall of Justice.
Footage shot by NewsChopper 2 showed how the fire quickly spread to two adjacent structures: one a commercial building, the other, a six-unit apartment building.
"It's a densely populated building. We had both rescue squads, which is usually not the case," said SF Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White. "We called in both rescue squads to do a search and rescue and swept the building over and over to make sure there were no residents left inside."
For a time dense smoke billowed onto Folsom Street, making visibility next to impossible. A firefighter and civilian were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation. One firefighter suffered a shoulder injury and four others were treated on the scene for breathing difficulties.
"My main objective is to make sure everyone goes home to their families," said Hayes-White. "They do a great job dedicating their lives to protecting people. It's my job to protect them as much as possible."
The tension rose when burning timbers fell from the face of the building. Fearing a potential collapse, the chief ordered firefighters to evacuate over the radios and with air horn blasts.
"It's a friend of mine, so for me what I thought was if I went down I'd want somebody looking for me," said firefighter Mariano Elias. "I was tired. No joke."
The firefighter was located and is safe. The arson task force is on scene to try to determine the cause of the fire.
So far, there was no official word on how the blaze started from San Francisco Fire Department. However, KTVU heard from residents of the building that it may have been sparked by a woman barbequing chicken who doused what she was cooking with bourbon, igniting the blaze.
Arson investigator said that the cause of the fire likely wouldn't be determined until Thursday at the earliest.
The 48-unit building appears to be a complete loss. There was significant damage to two other buildings and minor damage to a third. There were no serious injuries.
The Red Cross was helping those left homeless by the fire with a temporary shelter. Volunteers are trying to figure out just how many people have been left homeless and how to get them through this crisis in the short term
Residents said they were desperate, shocked, terrified as they described how they felt trying to escape the burning park hotel.
"I walked out with this one shoe. I was trying to find another pair, but it got so smoky I couldn’t," said resident Robert Stacey. "Then when one of the fire guys grabbed me and said 'You've got to go!'"
Evacuees told KTVU that by the time fire alarms went off, the halls were already filled with black smoke.
"I couldn't run out, so I came back in and grabbed a rag over my face," said resident Martin Valladares. "When I was running down the stairs I kept jumping down the stairs trying to get out of the building."
Red Cross volunteers told KTVU 106 people were believed to live at this apartment building. Some only speak limited English.
Many lost everything they owned except for what they were able to take with them.
"I was so frightened. I have a bag packed for such emergencies and I forgot to pick up the bag," said resident Michael Sisco.
The American Red Cross was trying to meet the immediate needs of those left homeless including shelter for the night and missing medications.
"These aren't people who have insurance or great resources in the community," said Woody Baker-Cohn of the Red Cross. "So people in general have much higher needs."
The Red Cross said after they open the shelter, they plan to bring in health care providers and crisis counselors to help these residents cope with their losses.
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