Not every day a large building in San Jose is engulfed in a raging inferno, sending dark clouds of smoke that can be seen for miles, forcing hundreds of people to flee to safety and capturing the nation’s attention.
So when the Home Depot store in south San Jose quickly caught fire last weekend, many residents were reminded of one of the city’s most recent catastrophic building fires: the 2002 Santana fire.
While San Jose has experienced an abundance of other giant infernoes over the past two decades – including a 2010 fire that burned most of Merit Trace Elementary School to the ground and a five-alarm fire in 2014 that destroyed a 120,000-square-foot warehouse – Santana Row remains the worst in San History. Contract, imprinted in the minds of many residents.
In some ways – from the types of buildings to the size and width of the destruction – the fires in Santana and Home Depot line are quite different. But the stories told by residents have sober similarities.
In both cases, San Jose residents raised their neighbors’ roofs to put out flames, and saw coals the size of food plates fall from the sky blocks away from the sources of the fires. They gathered under a clear, blue sky to see how part of their community was fading before their eyes.
Videos and photos of the fire of five alarms that broke out around 5.30pm on April 9 in the Home Depot tree section at 920 Blossom Hill Road have gone viral on social media. The fierce flames, detected by orbiting satellites, leveled the store with alarming speed. It took at least 100 firefighters from 30 units to contain the blaze and prevent flames – resulting from a mixture of wood, paint and a variety of other flammable products inside the store – from destroying homes and neighboring businesses.
San Jose fire investigators were still working Wednesday to determine the cause of the fire, including whether it was intentionally set on fire. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Weapons and Explosives is currently assisting in the investigation.
Facilities like Home Depot should be inspected annually to ensure that building sprinkler systems, water pipes and other fire protection systems are up to date, according to the city’s fire code. Firefighters recently inspected this Home Depot store – built in 1977 and covering 97,000 square feet – on Oct. 5, 2021, and inspectors found no code violations at the time, according to San Jose Fire Department spokeswoman Erica Ray.
Still, customers and employees who were at Home Depot when the flames erupted asked why, according to reports, the store’s fire alarms were not heard until almost everyone was outside the building – and whether the store’s sprinklers ever worked.
The fire in Santana, for comparison, broke out at 3:36 p.m. Monday, Aug. 19, 2002, in a building that covered about six acres – or more than four football fields – in the shopping development that was then under construction.
The fire rose to 11 alarms, forcing the city’s fire department to seek help outside Santa Clara County for the first time. More than 200 firefighters and 70 trucks, engines and other vehicles – or about double that used for the Home Depot fire – were called to help. Like the fire at Home Depot, no casualties or serious injuries were reported in a row fire in Santana.
“It was just a horrible, horrible time because we came out of a recession and it was a bright star,” said Nancy Klein, director of the San Jose Economic Development Office, who added that she put development development back about two years. .
During the investigation into the cause of the devastating fire in 2002, fire investigators looked for two main options – that it was accidentally caused by some heat work done as part of the construction operations or that it was intentionally set on fire. Investigators have never been able to make a final decision.
Former San Jose residents Ken and Jane Pyle, who lived about half a mile south of Santana Rowe on the other side of Highway 280, still remember the neighbor who grabbed a ladder and climbed on their house to bypass three places where their roofs are. Start burning.
“We were just lucky,” Ken Pyle said in an interview Wednesday. “If no one was home, chances are he would have been burned.”
Nearly two decades later, 17-year-old Oscar Puck, who lives just behind Home Depot in Drive to Lisa, jumped into action and grabbed a pipe gauge to put out coals on his neighbor’s roof.
“It was pretty scary because it was huge,” Puck said of the fire at a nearby home remodeling store.
The fire in Santana caused more than $ 100 million in development damage. But dozens of residents felt a great loss in many hot coals that rained down nearby houses and apartments.
More than 30 apartments and townhouses in the Morpark neighborhood were also destroyed in fires lit by hot coals that were more than half a mile from the Santana line and set fire to roofs, causing an additional $ 2.5 million in damage.
In the case of the Home Depot fire, the department did not report that businesses or other homes were destroyed by the embers, although some were damaged to their roofs and backyard fences due to firefighting efforts and the embers falling. During the fighting, a Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office helicopter spotted two nearby fires and reported them to crews on the ground, but firefighters have not yet said if they are related to the main fire at Home Depot.
“It was the most tragic thing in a row fire in Santana – the people who lived in the apartments and had no tenant insurance and lost everything,” Ken Pyle said.
After the fire in a row in Santana, the city’s fire department faced a response to subsequent fires that broke out in the Morpark neighborhood, as reports from this news organization found that firefighters were repeatedly dismissed calling for backup. But in the two decades since, the department has made a host of changes and updates to its mutual assistance and emergency communications systems to better deal with major incidents.
Still, the problems persist. San Jose’s fire department, which was already one of the poorest fire departments in the country when the fire broke out in Santana, is even thinner today – even as the number of calls firefighters are asked to respond to has almost doubled. While that does not mean the city can not cope with a big inferno like that of Home Depot, Matt Tuttle, president of San Jose Firefighters Local 230, said it makes it difficult to respond to other emergencies that may occur simultaneously.
“The efforts of our firefighters were no less heroic,” Tuttle said. “… but again our firefighters continue to do more with less on a regular basis.”
Team Writer Summer Lynn contributed to this story.