A huge blaze erupted before dawn Friday north of downtown Oakland, engulfing a six-story, mixed-use building that was under construction and prompting concern about a crane that was in danger of collapsing.
The fire, which broke out near Valdez and 23rd streets about 4:30 a.m., northwest of Lake Merritt, sent flames high into the air, and a plume of smoke was visible for miles. There was no immediate word of any injuries.
At 5:45 a.m., portions of the building at 2302 Valdez St. could be seen stripping away and falling to the ground as the fire raged. From a few blocks away, neighbors and area workers watched the building be gutted in the intense heat.
“I was scared,” said Mout Khamphou, 50, who was sitting in her car getting ready to go to work when she saw smoke coming from the building next door.
She said drove away, thinking the fire wasn’t bad. She called her husband who was still at home to warn him of the fire.
“I called my husband and I said, ‘I saw the fire start. ‘You have to be careful and get ready to get out.’ He called me and said, ‘Oh honey, the fire started getting worse and he asked where my passport and papers are. Our apartment won’t be safe anymore. I was crying a lot, I worried.”
She said she turned around and drove back to her neighborhood to find flames shooting from the burning building.
“I saw a lot of smoke. Big, big smoke. That’s why I’m shaking and crying a lot,” Khamphou said. “So I’m worried. We have all our stuff in there.”
Firefighters were working to contain the inferno and keep nearby buildings from catching fire. A number of streets in the area were blocked off. The cause was under investigation.
By 7:30 a.m., firefighters appeared to have the flames knocked down, but the gutted structure was still smouldering.
Residents of surrounding buildings were evacuated by police and firefighters, many stood on the streets outside the burning structure in their pajamas. Black ash was falling from the sky on cars and people in the area.
One evacuated resident said he saw the fire apparently start in an elevator shaft at the building.
A large crane in the middle of the construction sight was swinging around on its own, adding additional concerns to firefighters.
“The crane was just spinning. The building was burning and that crane was just spinning. I thought it was going to come down,” said Oudy Sene, 47, who lives near by and was standing at 24th and Harrison streets.
He said a neighbor was yelling outside his house to evacuate about 4:30 am and that’s how he discovered that a fire had started.
“I looked out the window and this guy yelled, ‘Get out of the building.’ It was full of smoke. So much ash,” Sene said.
Lobsang Chokey, 19, who lives in the 200 block of Valdez said he woke up at 5 a.m., looked out his window and saw the blaze. She said her mother and father raced around their building knocking on doors to alert neighbors.
“It was hot and there was like black flakes there. My face got dirty,” said Chokey, standing at 24th and Harrison in her bathrobe. “We were scared about the car fires. There was loud noises. It gets worse and worse. I could hear cracks.”
According to a project website, the building known as Alta Waverly — set to be completed next spring — was to include 196 market-rate apartments and up to 31,500 square feet of retail, with parking for residents in an underground garage.
The building was part of the Broadway Valdez Specific Plan district, an area designated by the city in 2014 where developers can get speedier approval for projects if they meet certain mixed-use requirements. It is meant to bring vitality to the neighborhood once known as Auto Row, which the city described three years ago as “an area where vacant storefronts and half-empty parking lots are indicators of the need for a new direction.”
A 22-year-old construction worker on the project was staying at a nearby hotel when one of his co-workers got a text from his mother alerting them to the fire. The worker, who asked that his name not be used, said no one should have been in the building at the time the fire broke out.
“What are the chances. It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “It’s the first big project I’ve been on and it just caught fire. My tools are inside and they’re all probably gone.”
It was the latest big, devastating blaze to hit the area. In March, a fire at a halfway house on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland killed four residents. In December, the Ghost Ship fire in the city’s Fruitvale neighborhood killed 36 people attending an underground music event in a warehouse.
A $35 million mixed-use project under construction in neighboring Emeryville has gone up in flames twice in the past year, most recently on May 13. Investigators released grainy photographs of a man riding a bicycle near the seven-story residential and business development known as the Intersection.
Check back for updates.