The San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — Fire commanders at the scene of Thursday's house blaze in San Francisco's Diamond Heights desperately sought to find a crew of firefighters when they became separated from their colleagues, but couldn't locate them before two of them were enveloped in a superheated flareup, radio logs and dispatch recordings show.
The fire at 133 Berkeley Way began about 10:44 a.m., apparently when an electrical outlet sparked and ignited curtains in the ground-level living room of the four-story home, one of the occupants of the home told dispatchers. The woman and three children in the home at the time escaped unharmed.
About 20 minutes after the first firefighters arrived, superheated gases ignited in a room where a two-man crew from the neighborhood station house was fighting the blaze. The leader of the crew, Lt. Vincent Perez, 48, was killed, and his colleague Anthony Valerio, 53, was in critical condition Friday night at San Francisco General Hospital.
The Fire Department is investigating what happened but did not issue any updates on the probe Friday.
Dispatch logs and recordings shed light on how what the first responding firefighters called a "low-grade" blaze went tragically wrong.
Perez, a 21-year veteran firefighter, and two colleagues from Engine Company 26 in Diamond Heights were the first to arrive at 10:47 a.m., the dispatch log shows. Dispatch tapes captured him coughing as he reported on the situation.
"We have an active fire, zero visibility, third floor," Perez said. The home's third floor is actually the ground level from the street, with two floors below it built into a hillside.
A scene commander, identified by firefighters as Battalion Chief Thomas Abbott, ordered a crew from Engine Company 24 to back up Perez's crew inside the building. For several minutes, however, scene commanders repeatedly tried to find the Engine 26 firefighters, without success.
Finally, what appeared to be the last communication from the doomed crew came over the radio. "This is 26, this is 26. ... Battalion 6, what's your location?" said a muffled voice.
"Twenty-six, this is command, I need to know your ..." came in reply.
"This is Engine 26, we're on the third..." At that point, the voice over the radio trailed off.
Another crew soon asked the command post for permission to cut a hole in the roof to allow superheating gases to escape from the home. It is not clear whether anyone had done that in the dozen or so minutes firefighters had been on the scene, but it would have been a crucial step in preventing what happened to Perez and Valerio.
The two firefighters were alone when they were overcome, and exactly when the deadly flareup happened is unclear.
One mystery raised by the dispatch tapes concerns a radio message that a dispatcher sent to the Berkeley Way command post at about 11:07 a.m. She said, "Engine 20 activated their emergency alarm and they haven't confirmed their response for five minutes."
The emergency alarm is a red panic button that all firefighters carry on their radios. On Thursday, Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said the alarm had come from one of the fallen firefighters.
However, Engine 20 was a different company, which was not yet at the fire scene. A fire official close to the investigation, speaking on condition he not be named because the probe is in its early stages, said someone on Engine 20 may have pressed a panic button accidentally while en route to Berkeley Way.
A hurried check
A commander at the scene, however, said he was heading into the house anyway when he got the dispatcher's radio call.
"I copy that, I'm going to look for them right now," said the commander, who is not identified on the tape.
A few seconds later, about 11:10 a.m., a firefighter announced that he needed medics right away.
"I've got a man down," the firefighter said, his voice surging with adrenaline. "Come through the front door, go down the stairs to the right, do you copy?"
Chief Joanne Hayes-White said the whole episode, including the communications dispatches, will be under review as part of the investigation.
"We want to do a complete and through investigation," Hayes-White said. "Right now, my complete attention is on Perez and Valerio. We're holding out hope for Tony; he's a fighter."
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