Four-alarm fire slows S.J. transit

January 17, 2008 12:09:23 PM PST
It has been a major headache getting around downtown San Jose -- several light rail stations are still closed after a huge overnight blaze gutted a building under renovation at South First and San Fernando Streets.

But the big worry now is a possible explosion -- a gas line still has not been shut off because of the danger to firefighters.

Engineers have decided the building is unsafe and could collapse. What makes it worse is the worry of an explosion because there are still some flames fueled by a gas leak. This is why firefighters are not trying to put it out. It's safer to keep it burning and it may take hours before the gas can be safely shut off.

A section of the heart of downtown San Jose lit up from a massive early morning fire -- flames shot out of a two-story commercial building on South First and San Fernando streets with embers raining down onto the pavement below.

Fire commanders quickly called a fourth-alarm for more assistance -- their crews faced the tough elements of accessibility, narrow streets and many buildings crowded close together.

"Also the size of the building and the density of the, the closeness of the building, we do have the St. Joseph's cathedral to the rear," said Capt. Anthony Pianto, San Jose fire department.

About 75 firefighters kept flames from spreading to the cathedral behind and the adjacent jewelry store housed in an historic building. Even though the burning building was under construction and considered vacant, firefighters still used thermal imaging cameras to check for anyone inside, but found no one.

"It is always a situation where someone could have been inside trying to keep warm," said Capt. Anthony Pianto.

Even with flames contained to the one building, when a wall collapsed, the bigger problem became the structural stability of it, plus a gas leak that couldn't be safely shut off.

"We are unable to get in there and safely secure the gas line by the valve, and we are still hesitant about sending PG&E crews or fire crews in there," said Capt. Anthony Pianto.

Both a city building official and structural engineer looked at the building and decided the front masonry facade was unsafe. Until that wall can be shored up, PG&E crews have to wait to shut off the gas.

It's also become a mess for commuters. Since VTA had to shut electrical power to its light rail and re-route buses. VTA officials closed the track at about 4:15 a.m., affecting the Santa Teresa/Alum Rock and Winchester/Mountain View lines. Bus bridges were stopping at the Children's Discovery Museum and San Jose Civic Center. Passengers are advised to allow an extra 30 minutes for commutes. The bus bridges may be in effect longer than expected depending on the building's condition.

"We carry 30,000 plus passengers a day, so we're looking at a pretty sizeable impact this morning and we are hearing that due to the safety issues of that building, that we may not be able to open service on First Street for a good part of the day," said Brandi Childress, Valley Transportation Authority.

The fire department has brought in heavy equipment to shore up the front wall. If this doesn't work and PG&E crews can't get to the gas valve inside, then plan-b is to tear up a part of First Street to access the gas line.

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Bay City News has contributed to this report