Novermber 2016 - Amber Lee,
KTVU CH2 Reporter - Several firefighters making a documentary about a fire that destroyed Gartland Apartments @16th St and Valencia, December 12, 1975.
Click on the first image to start the slide show.
Photos: SFFD Museum - Rachael Jack Thompson Collection.
‘IT’S LIKE VIETNAM IN THERE’
San Francisco Chronicle, Sat., December 13, 1975
By: Eugene Robinson
The fire danced, the water cascaded in torrents on hot, charred wood, the early morning air carried a biting chill.
And on the streets they waited.
In a growing pile of debris at the center of the crumbling hulk that once was the Gartland apartment house, people lay dead.
No one knew how many. No one knew who.
Firemen emerging from the building reported the interior totally destroyed. The roof and fifth floor had virtually collapsed.
'It's like Vietnam in there;" one exhausted firefighter said, as he slurped coffee doled out by busy volunteers at a Red Cross station wagon parked nearby.
Mindless of the cold, wet spray kicked up by firefighters, high-pressure jets, about 200 onlookers trudged through six-inch puddles and a spaghetti of hoses to get a closer look at the deadliest San Francisco fire in more than ten years.
Rodney Hilton, 26, lives diagonally across 16th and Valencia streets from the Gartland building. He was one of many persons who saw a woman burned alive.
According to Hilton, a middle-aged woman appeared at the bay window of a fourth-floor corner apartment at the height of the fire. Hilton said the woman, who held a purse in one hand, was screaming wildly for firemen to send a rescue ladder.
"I really don't think they saw her." Hilton said. ''The flames just shot into the room and I didn't see her anymore. She just burst into flames."
As the first hint of morning light arrived, firemen found an elderly man, unconscious and barely alive, on the floor of a second-floor apartment. His name was James Ward. He died later at San Francisco General Hospital.
With dawn also came the first finding of the dead. Burned beyond recognition/' was the word from Fire Chief Keith Calden, who directed the department's operations throughout used that phrase again and again.
The extent of the damage revealed itself only at dawn. By then the building was a dead, empty shell. Walls were gone, floors and ceilings gone, brightening sky visible through windows which three hours before had opened into people’s homes.
The storefronts that lined the first floor of the apartment house were remarkably undamaged — a cafe, an appliance store, a gift shop, a 25-cent peep show.
Also relatively undamaged was the Sanitary Market, owned and run by Harry and Elly Nanos, who lived in the apartment above their store.
They stood outside in the cold morning as their home was destroyed.
"My husband woke up to go to the bathroom and saw the smoke," 47-year-old Mrs. Nanos said, "we took whatever we could."
Harry Nanos said an arsonist had tried to burn the building in September and concluded that the fatal fire had also been set:
"How else could it happen? Arsonists? Hang them!"
Mr. and Mrs. Nanos watched as long as they could, then walked to St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church where they joined other survivors of the fire. By midday, Red Cross representatives at the church had agreed to provide food, shelter and clothing for more than 25 homeless victims.
The Red Cross advised refugees from the fire contact the organization’s central office or go to St. John’s, 15th and Julian street, for aid.
The displaced, most wearing borrowed clothes, clustered in a small sitting room at the church and drank Red Cross coffee.
Barbara Davis cradled her 2-year-old daughter, Abba, in her right arm. Her left hand clutched a red transistor radio. She spoke rapidly of the events of the morning.
At 3:40 a.m. she had been pacing the floor of her second-story studio apartment. It looked like a sleepless night.
"I was up with the baby. She was having a hard time, she wouldn’t sleep. So I went to the kitchen to have a cigarette,” The 37 year old Mrs. Davis said.
"I saw black smoke coming through the front door. There was a fire. I figured we wouldn't be able to make it out.
"I grabbed the baby and then I picked up the radio. I don't know why. Then I kicked off my slippers. I figured I could run faster without them.
"I went to the window and started yelling for help. I yelled for the fire department."
At this point Mrs. Davis' story becomes a jumble of frightening noise, anguished cries for help, hallways filled with black smoke. Eventually she climbed out a second-story window onto a setback roof at the rear of the building. By this time, the fire department had arrived.
"They were raising ladders against the wall. A fireman carried the baby down for me.
"I kept thinking of the baby's pictures. I lost the only pictures I had of the baby. But we're lucky we're alive."
Then she lowered her voice: "I think we lost our neighbors across the way. I heard yelling, but I don't think they got out."
There was Bill Barber, the building manager, whose apartment was virtually the only one that escaped the blaze; there was a young man who had finally found some clothes after walking around for most of the moaning clad only in jeans, a blanket and one bedroom slipper, there was a portly woman who sat silently in a corner.
There were also assorted dogs and cats that through instinct or human love had gotten out.
S.F. ARSONIST'S TOLL— 12 DEAD, 14 INJURED
San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, December 13, 1975, front page
By George Draper
Arson investigators said yesterday that a killer fire in a Mission District apartment building was the work of an arsonist who used gasoline to turn the buildings stairwell "into a five-story torch.”
He killed 12, injured 14. and left more than 100 persons homeless. The coroner's office had identified only one of the dead last night-- James Ward, age “about 70."
This was definitely arson," said Lieutenant James Mahoney. "It like the gasoline was poured at the top and allowed to run down to the bottom of the stairwell where the guy lit it and walked out."
The five-alarm. $400,000 blaze occurred at 3:43 a.m. yesterday in the Gartland Apartments at 495 Valencia street, a block hit by four or five arsonist-set fires since last August.
The 60 unit apartment building is the subject of Superior Court condemnation proceedings
Lt. Mahoney said there have been 11 arson fires within an eight block area of the Gartland Apartments m the past year and have some suspects in mind."
Fire Chief Keith Calden, who took charge of the fire fight, said some surviving witnesses reported smelling gasoline in the old frame building.
That and "the way the fire took off." the chief said, supported the theory that the fire had been deliberately set.
Firemen who charged into the burning building's lobby and tried to drag a hose up the stairs to the second floor were engulfed by a ball of flame and forced to retreat.
They were among the 11 firemen who were injured, seven of whom were hospitalized.
When firemen arrived on the scene flames had burst through the building’s roof and were shooting out of the upper windows.
Occupants of the building were seen scrambling on ledges, jumping to the street from lower windows or trying to lower themselves on ropes fashioned from sheets and blankets.
The air was full of terrifying screams of those trapped upstairs and the wail of fire truck sirens.
George Jackson, who lives a block away, said he was awakened by the persistent screams and thought someone was being attacked.
I dressed and ran that block in time to see two women with children in their arms jumping to safety," said Jackson.
One woman was seen leaning out a fourth-floor bay window frantically screaming for help.
"Suddenly," said Rodney Hilton, who was watching from across the street, "she just burst into flames."
Aerial ladders were shot up to the fourth and fifth floors and firemen brought 30 to 40 persons, many of them elderly, to safety that way.
Flames quickly spread up the stairwells of the building, blocking escape of those on the upper floors.
San Francisco authorities had been notified by Building Inspector Wilkin Lee in 1970 that the Gartland Apartments was a fire-trap.
One of the reasons cited by Wilkin and again in a complaint by the fire prevention bureau in 1974 was that the building had no fire alarm system and no smoke barriers in the open stairwells.
Chief Emmett Condon of the fire prevention bureau said after the embers had cooled that it takes "entirely too long" to bring landlords into conformance with fire safety laws.
The Gartland Apartments were facing Superior Court condemnation proceedings, brought by the city attorney's office, next month.
The property is owned by the Summit Land Co., principal owner of which is Beatrice Presant, a crippled widow who lives in a luxurious Ingleside home at 135 Cedro avenue.
Mrs. Presant could not be reached for comment but her attorney, Charles Morgan, said he was under the impression that work was being done on the apartment building to meet legal requirements.
The fire was so hot and so widespread that the roof and the fifth floors collapsed. So did the areas around the stairwells.
Another testament to the intensity of the fire was that all of the dead save two were burned beyond recognition.
Many of the bodies were difficult to find because they were buried under tons of charred debris. Two were brought down in baskets from the fourth floor, one from the third floor.
At 5:45 a.m., when the fire was under control, firemen found James Ward, in his 70s, still alive on the floor of his second-floor room.
He was revived with oxygen but died shortly later at San Francisco General Hospital.
The coroner’s office set up a temporary morgue on the northwest corner of 16th and Valencia streets, where the bodies wrapped in blue tarps were laid out in neat rows.
FIREMEN ENGULFED IN FLAMES
By Ralph Craib
At 3:47 a.m. yesterday—just three minutes after a series of anguished telephone calls had begun reporting the fire—Engine Company 36 rolled up to the corner of 16th and Valencia streets.
Richard Folia, a 48-year-old acting captain, was in charge. He has been fighting fires for the last 25 years. But he had never confronted such a massive ball of flame.
"When we got to 15th and Valencia streets (a block away from the burning Gartland Apartments at 495 Valencia)," Folia said from his San Francisco General Hospital bed "that building was on fire along the entire second and third floors."
Folia radioed the fire department dispatcher that he had a "working fire." Within seconds, he also radioed a second alarm. third, fourth and fifth alarms followed, as well as requests for additional ladder-carrying trucks.
The first concern of firemen was getting people out of the rambling five-story structure. But after 20 minutes Folia and apparently about five other men found themselves not fighting a fire but in the very center of it.
There was no complete report yesterday, and not all who survived were available. But Folia said. '"Suddenly Debris and fire descended on firemen attempting to get water up the stairwell to the upper floors. "All at once," Folia said. “we were engulfed—it drove us right out of there."
Folia found his left leg ensnarled in a fire hose: his boot pulled off as he fought his way out of the building, and lie suffered smoke inhalation and leg and wrist burns.
“Debris came down on us: I don't know how far it fell." he said.
Fireman Henry Jebe, 26, also of Engine Company 36was with Folia. He was severely burned when the ball of flame erupted on them.
"All 1 know," he said through bandages in the hospital yesterday, "was that I was on my face and in the fire. I crawled to the doorway and I lay down in a pool of water.
"My initial reaction was just to get the hell out of there."
Ralph Merillion. 44. of Rescue Squad 1 was in the same area as Folia and Jebe. "I think it was an explosion or the ceiling collapsed," he said. He suffered extensive burns of his arms, face and scalp.
Both Merillion and Jebe were considered so seriously hurt that they were transferred from the San Francisco General Hospital Burn Unit to the St. Francis Hospital Burn Treatment Center. "It's nothing serious," said Merillion through swathes of bandages. 'Nothing serious at all."
Dr. Charles Blakelv. chief resident of San Francisco General Hospital's burn unit said that prognosis for all 11 of the injured firemen is “probably pretty good." But several of them, he said, may face several months of hospitalization.
A chief danger, he said, is that lung damage is generally not apparent for a week or more. This may bring with it a variety of "serious pulmonary problems."
Yesterday, however, the casualties took a thumbs-up attitude. Sedated, only hours after they all had seemed to be swallowed in a massive ball of searing flame, they said that they were fine.
THE INJURED FIREMEN AND OCCUPANTS
Eleven firemen and three residents of the apartment house were injured in yesterday s fire at 495 Valencia Street in which 12 persons died.
The injured firemen:
Captain Harry Brophy hospitalized with second-degree burns on his face and hands.
Lieutenant Sylvester Cotter, hospitalized with first and second-degree burns on his face and hands.
Lieutenant Richard Folia, hospitalized with minor burns.
Fireman James Williams, hospitalized with second-degree burns on his face.
Fireman Tom McGuire, hospitalized with first-and second-degree burns on his face and neck and damage to his eyes.
Fireman Henry Jebe. hospitalized with second-degree burns
Fireman Terrence Mulready, discharged after treatment for a broken foot.
Battalion Chief John Cavallero and Firemen Lawrence Ahern and Steven Flaherty, discharged after treatment for smoke inhalation and other minor injuries.
The three injured occupants of the building are:
Gregory Harper, given, hospitalized for of smoke inhalation.
Gene Hardy, 32, hospitalized for treatment of smoke inhalation.
Michael Lyons, 23, hospitalized for treatment of smoke inhalation
OWNER ALSO WARNED ON OTHER BUILDINGS
San Francisco Chronicle ★★★ Sat., Dec. 13, 1975
By Robert Bartlett
The Gartland Apartments, swept by an early-morning fire that killed 12 people yesterday, is one of four San Francisco buildings owned by an elderly, crippled widow.
The four, including the Gartland at 495 Valencia street, have been cited for numerous safety hazards by San Francisco building inspectors.
All are owned by the Summit Land Co., a firm whose principal owner is Beatrice Presant. Her attorney said she is a "crippled lady in her late 60s” who lives at 135 Cedro avenue in San Francisco's Ingleside District.
Complex business problems and a recent fall which crippled Mrs. Presant for life combined to make it impossible for Summit Land's owner to fix these buildings, according to Charles 0. Morgan Jr., her lawyer.
Although the Gartland building code violations were first spotted on June 29, 1970, a lack of clerical help, human error and delay permitted by the law allowed the apartment to remain unrepaired, according to Alfred Goldberg, head of San Francisco's Bureau of Building Inspection.
City records show that Building Inspector Wilkin Lee warned that the Gartland was a firetrap in June. 1970. But because "we simply don't have the clerks," Goldberg said, Lees report was not typed until November, 1970.
Three times in the past five years, Summit Land got building permits to repair the Gartland, Goldberg's records show. But inspectors checking the apartment discovered the work had not been done.
At least twice in the same time span, vital documents relating to the case were mismailed or disappeared for months from the Gartland file in the Bureau of Building Inspection, Goldberg said.
A condemnation hearing before San Francisco's Director of Public Works Myron Tatarian—a prerequisite to court action— was first scheduled for March 27, 1973. It was finally held on Nov. 5, 1973, and Tatarian ordered the Gartland brought up to code.
After Summit failed to do the necessary work, Goldberg's records show the matter was finally forwarded to Deputy City Attorney Edward Johnson for court action on Nov. 6, 1974.
Unhappily, Johnson had scheduled a Superior Court hearing for Jan. 6, 1976, to ask that the Gartland be, at last, formally condemned as a safety hazard.
Despite yesterday's fire, Johnson promised to continue that lawsuit "to make damn sure that the Gartland simply doesn't remain an empty shell out there on Valencia."
Safety hazards are just as grave at a 99-unit apartment at 441 Ellis street owned by Summit Land Co., Johnson said yesterday.
A Superior Court judge condemned the building in November, 1974, Johnson said, after city inspectors reported 47 violations of municipal building and safety codes.
Similarly, Johnson got a court order condemning the 40 unit Casa Madrone at 110 Frederick street, owned by Summit, because of 61 code violations,
The deputy city attorney said he will be back in Superior Court on January 8 to seek contempt citations for Mrs. Presant for failing to repair both these properties.
Johnson is also trying to get the Superior Court to condemn the fourth San Francisco building—at 1860 Jackson street—owned by Summit Land, although he grants that in this case, the code violations are mostly technical.
Attorney Morgan outlined some of his client's problems in trying to clear up her legal entanglements with the Bureau of Building Inspection and, later, the courts.
'The Ellis street property was sold years ago,'' he said. "When a big payment came due some years later, the owners simply walked away. Mrs. Presant took the property back and discovered they let it fall apart after buying it from her.”
Mrs. Presant is negotiating the sale of the Ellis street apartment Morgan said, and he has asked Johnson to hold up the contempt hearings until the deal goes through.
"There's simply one reason why that hasn't been sold already. " huffed Johnson." She wants too much money for it."
The Casa Madrone was leased by Summit Land to people who defaulted on the rent, Morgan continued. He spent months getting the property back for Mrs. Presant who discovered that it too was decaying.
That property is now vacant, Morgan said. A new tenant has been found and is repairing the building so that it will meet city standards.
As to the Gartland,, the lawyer said that the information I had was that the work required by the city was being done. Quite frankly, I was surprised when the city informed me recently that we would go to trial about that one."
A MASS FOR THE VICTIMS
A memorial Mass for the 12 persons killed in yesterday's Mission District fire will be concelebrated at 9 a.m. Monday at Mission Dolores, 16th and Dolores streets, two blocks from the fire site, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco announced yesterday.
The diocesan spokesman said that the Mass also will express gratitude for San Francisco firemen, 11 of whom were injured or burned at the disaster.
Back to the Top