Fire Displaces Residents, Restaurants

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Debris floods into the street as the remnants of the burnt building are demolished.

Reese Levine, Staff Writer

On Friday, Nov. 18, a fire broke out in a building on the corner of Haste and Telegraph in Berkeley. It was the largest fire to hit Berkeley since 1991, and left 68 tenants displaced.

After being notified at around 9 p.m., firefighters fought the blaze continuously for around six hours before it was finally contained. The Red Cross was also on hand to assist the displaced residents.

No one was injured in the five-alarm fire, but at least two levels of the building were completely destroyed, and the tenants lost much of their personal belongings. At least four tenants also lost pets, leaving them devastated.

Most of the residents were current or former UC Berkeley students, and were stunned at the extent of the damage.

“I don’t think anyone really worries about their building burning up,” UC Berkeley senior Jessica Watson said. “And then it happens and you’re just completely amazed.”

The 39-unit apartment building was also home to popular restaurants Café Intermezzo and Raleigh’s Bar and Grill. On Café Intermezzo’s Facebook page, patrons expressed disappointment and hope that the café would be relocated and reopened soon.

Because the building was deemed structurally unsound, the Berkeley Fire Department requested and was granted a permit to partially demolish it. This also allowed the fire marshal to conduct his investigation into the cause of the fire.

The demolition was halted temporarily on Nov. 30 after an accidental violation of the permit, but the city issued an updated permit and the matter was rectified.

The owners have been cooperating with fire officials in the investigation, but have declined to comment to the media.

A meeting was held on Nov. 28 between tenants to discuss possible legal options against the owners. They complained about faulty electronics, an old, unreliable elevator, and negligence in responding to their complaints.

At the meeting, Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington spoke up in defense of the tenants, saying that the owners must be held responsible.

“This fire did not happen all by itself. I think there is an enormous liability with this landlord,” Worthington said. There are no city records of complaints at the building, and it had passed fire inspections.

The fire seems to have started due to an electical failure in the machinery. The cause of the fire is tied to elevator machinery in the basement and started accidentally.

Industrial Relations, which is in charge of inspecting elevators, said the elevator had not been inspected in over a year and its permit expired in August.

The owners of the building also had a contract with the Paramount Elevator Corporation, which inspects elevators and maintains them. A man who answered the phone there declined to comment on the last time the elevator had been inspected, saying the matter is in court.

As of press time, the Berkeley Fire Department has not released its official report, but it should become public within the next few weeks. If the report finds the owners negligent, then they may have to repay the tenants for all damages.

In February, a smaller fire damaged two apartments, and was probably set by a homeless man smoking in the stairwell.