Father of three dies in fire on Christmas

Neighbors in the heart of the Mission reacted with distress Monday at news that a father of three died in an apartment fire early Christmas morning.

Augustine Garcia, 33, of San Francisco, was killed when a small, but vicious blaze broke out in his family’s third floor apartment near 24th and Treat streets around 2:30 a.m. Monday, according to the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office.

The only sign of a fire Monday, a soaking mound of charged personal belongings still reeking of burnt tar, drew curious locals to the three-unit building.

“It’s hard to think happy today with what’s happened,” said Ernesto Paul, 50, who is painting a mural on a nearby corner.

“It’s been very difficult,” said Robert Ayar, 38, owner of Jalisco Produce on the first floor of the fire-ravaged building. Ayar said he didn’t know Garcia personally, but his family had purchased produce from him. “When I came this morning and I saw everything burned, I couldn’t believe what happened. And on Christmas Day — it’s such a terrible disaster,” he said.

Lt. Ken Smith, one of the first firefighters to arrive, said emergency crews at first had trouble seeing the burning building, but a resident flagged them down and alerted them to the fire’s location. “Once we got inside, it was glowing,” he said. “There was fire everywhere.”

Garcia was found inside his apartment, “overcome by smoke,” Smith said.

Twelve other occupants, including six children, were rescued, he said. Most of them had fled up to a neighbor’s roof away from the flames, forcing them to crawl down a fire engine ladder to escape, he said.

Neighbor Olga Orellana was sleeping with her children and husband when she heard the sirens. “We woke up and we were scared,” she said. “There was a lot of smoke, but we didn’t see the flames. Everyone was outside without their shoes in their pajamas.”

The building’s owner, who lives on the second floor and was on vacation when the fire struck, refused to comment in front of his apartment on Monday.

Smith said Garcia’s family, despite the tragedy, was in good spirits Monday as they stayed in a nearby hotel courtesy of the American Red Cross. “We went to see the family [Monday] and brought them toys we had in our stash,” he said.

“We got 12 out. I wish we could have gotten one more. The tragic thing is that Christmas won’t be the same for the family for the rest of their lives,” he said.

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