Apartment Fire Displaces Nine in Contra Costa County, California

Kevin Cravo awoke with a bang about 3:30 a.m. Friday.

"My wife was already up ... with our 2-week-old. We thought it was a gunshot," said the resident of the Muir Creek apartment complex at 486 Morello Ave. "Then the cops were banging on our door, telling us we had to go."

No gunplay here, Cravo soon learned. The bang probably came from toppling debris across the courtyard, where a spectacular two-alarm fire burned out nine of his neighbors and nearly ended badly for two firefighters.

They fell through the floor of a burning second-story apartment.

"That's the worst feeling in the world, feeling the floor start to give beneath you, knowing that the fire is right below you," said Contra Costa Fire Marshal Richard Carpenter. "You know you're on the fast track down."

Nobody got hurt, Carpenter said, mainly because other firefighters on the ground floor quickly extricated their coworkers. Occupants of the burnt building's four apartments stood outside when the trucks arrived; the American Red Cross later found temporary housing for them.

"These tile roofs are extremely heavy. In addition, these upstairs units all have commercial-grade air conditioning and heating above them, so it's heavy," said fire Capt. Terry Stewart, who helped clean up about 11 a.m. with the rest of Engine No. 9's crew.

"When things started falling through the roof into the apartments, the floor wasn't stopping them," Stewart said. "They kept on going. And that's what happened to our guys."

Those firefighters weren't up for an interview Friday morning, Carpenter said.

A neighbor smelled smoke and dialed 911 at 3:19 a.m. The early investigation showed that a cigarette butt left burning on the rear balcony of a second-floor apartment started the fire, Carpenter said.

The occupant of that apartment noticed the fire, Carpenter said, but instead of calling for help immediately he went outside and tried to put it out with a garden hose. That's a risky thing to do, Carpenter added.

All four apartments in the building were destroyed, either by fire or falling ceiling. Firefighters estimate the damage at $1.1 million.

"That's great that nobody got hurt," said Kevin Cravo as he examined a melted light pole in front of his home. "I feel really lucky."