Fear grows as onlookers track fire

October 21, 1991|By Leslie Guttman | Leslie Guttman,San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. -- As a blood-red sun shone through a gray haze of smoke, East Bay residents looked on in awe from Oakland and Berkeley streets at the worst fire in recent memory.

At first it was a spectacle. At about 11:30 a.m. in the North Oakland neighborhood of Rockridge, neighbors clustered together, gazing into the hills at the thick black and gray smoke unfurling like silk.

Teen-agers on mopeds raced up Claremont Avenue to get a look at the fire, as did college students packed into convertibles.

A half-hour later, as the sky turned black, fear had set in. The realization was dawning that while the fire looked far away, each minute was bringing it ever closer. Neighbors in North Oakland began hosing down their yards and packing their cars with everything from computers to Oriental rugs.

The Market Hall on College Avenue, usually teeming on Sundays with gourmet food shoppers and cappuccino drinkers, was dark and nearly empty. Inside, butcher Enzo Pollaco and an assistant were frantically wrapping steaks and putting them in coolers.

"We're getting the hell out of here," he said, "The fire just keeps getting bigger and bigger."

Outside, the streets had emptied of onlookers. Ash drifted through the air, and the smoke became thicker.

Jack Davidson, a retired pipe fitter, had just returned from the fire.

"At first, I thought it was a grass fire," he said. "Then all of a sudden it rose and rose. There was an explosion, and I saw a house completely blown up off its foundation . . . debris blowing everywhere."

In the streets of Elmwood, the Berkeley neighborhood just down the hill from Rockridge, the mood was markedly less panicked. The outdoor patio of the Cafe Roma at Ashby and College avenues was crowded. People watched the fire as if it were live theater.

Said hairdresser Susan Bailey, "We feel sort of helpless. We don't know what else to do except be out here together."

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