Apartment fire near UC Berkeley was accidental

March 8, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Investigators have now determined that spectacular early morning apartment fire in Berkeley started accidently. It started just after 4 a.m. in a three-story building on Dwight Way, just a few blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus.

The building is still standing, but barely. Investigators say the fire started near two water heaters in the back. Students who live in the building say they're grateful they got out.

The fast-moving and intense fire gutted a Berkeley apartment and forced dozens of Cal students out into the street early Thursday morning.

The flames shot high into the night sky and were visible for miles.

"I ran out the back, thinking we could get out that way; there were already flames coming up the stairs from the second floor, so we can out the front, kind of breathing smoke all the way," Melanie McCorkle said.

"You always think in situations like this what you're going to do, what are you going to grab, and in the instant, I didn't grab anything, just got out," Ian Larson said.

Cal football player Mychal Kendricks was among nine people who live in the heavy damaged six-unit apartment building.

"I opened up my door, my front door, smoke was all up and down the hallway," Kendricks said. "I looked out the back and saw some flames, so I grabbed what I could and got out of there."

It took firefighters four hours to put out the fire because they too had to evacuate when it showed signs of collapse.

"We have two 10-foot sections of a wall on the third story that are unsupported, where all the cross-members burned through, so they're precariously leaning," Berkeley Fire Department Deputy Chief Gil Dong said.

About 40 residents in six surrounding buildings were also evacuated because of concerns portions of the damaged building might fall on them.

"We were kind of scared at first because it looked pretty big, so we were scared it might come over, but we're glad they contained it," neighbor Jennifer Lai said.

The students who lost everything are getting help from both the university and the Red Cross. Some claim they didn't hear any smoke alarms, but fire officials say at least some of the smoke alarms in individual units were working. They're investigating whether the fire alarm, a separate system for the whole building, ever went off.

Displaced residents can call the Red Cross Bay Area at 510-595-444.

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