Investigators suspect arson in San Francisco Castro building fires

Aurora Kirby and her son, Erin, clutched some clothing, a laptop case and keys outside a burned-out Castro district apartment building on 16th Street on Thursday.

“We went out the back with just this,” Kirby said. “Everything we own is in there.”

A block away on 17th Street, the owner of another fire-ravaged apartment complex thanked his lucky stars that his family was not in the building during the blaze.

“I moved out six weeks ago with my baby,” said the owner, 45-year-old Brian Kendall, who added the building was undergoing renovation.

More than a dozen displaced residents were shellshocked Thursday morning after fires ripped through two apartment buildings located within a block of each other.

In total, three blazes broke out in the Castro over about an hour. The third was a trash-can fire earlier in the morning at Market and Sanchez streets. Fire investigators suspect the building infernos were intentionally set.

No one was injured except for a firefighter, who suffered a minor ankle wound while battling one of the blazes, Fire Department Lt. Mindy Talmadge said.

The displaced residents will either stay with family or in Red Cross-provided hotel rooms, Red Cross spokeswoman Melanie Finke said.

Fire crews remained at the locations late into Thursday morning, chucking burned wood and debris into piles and doing their best to salvage residents’ belongings.

Investigators probed video footage from surveillance cameras perched across the street from the 17th Street building.

Meanwhile, stunned victims consoled each other on the sidewalk. On 16th Street, a sobbing woman said her life was in the building. She was too upset to discuss what had happened.

Another resident, Ying Hsiao, said she spent the night at her mother’s home to celebrate Chinese New Year. She arrived back home at 9 a.m. Thursday and said her dog, Gabe, a small white terrier, was inside the building, but was saved.

A married couple living in a unit next door said they lost their couch, rug, photographs and some musical equipment when the fire spread.

“Our living room got destroyed,” said Michael Winger, a music producer, standing on the sidewalk with his wife, 30-year-old Jessica White Winger.

“Everybody is in shock,” Winger said.

The residents lauded firefighters for their professionalism. One firefighter, who claimed to be a DJ, rescued some of Winger’s musical equipment.

The firefighter moved Winger’s keyboard to another room and tried to cover his speakers to protect them from being drenched by water from fire hoses.

“The Fire Department was amazing,” Winger said.

Probe not ruling out possible hate crime

Arson investigators Thursday night had yet to arrest anyone in connection with three fires set earlier in the day in the Castro district, and they had not determined a motive. But because of where the fires took place — The City’s famously gay-friendly neighborhood — they are not ruling out the possibility the arsons are a hate crime.

“Obviously there are suspicions,” police Lt. Lyn Tomioka said. “I don’t believe there was any direct indication of any hate crime, but we’re going to look at every angle if they’re connected.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener, whose district includes the Castro, said there was not enough information to draw any conclusions, but he said fire victims include both gay and straight people.

“If they were trying to target gay people, they didn’t do the best job of it because there were straight people affected, too,” Wiener said.

In the Castro, there were mixed feelings about the fires.

“When I heard it on the news, my first thought was that it was anti-gay,” said Melanie Nathan, the editor of the lesbian blog “But that’s just speculation, of course.”

Sister Phyliss Withe-Litaday, a member of the nonprofit community organization Sisterhood of Perpetual Indulgence, was in the Castro on Thursday to draw attention to the homophobic murder of a gay rights activist in Uganda, but was hopeful the apparent violence closer to home did not stem from the same sentiment.

Brian Kendall, the owner of one of the destroyed buildings, said just days before the fires, officers arrested a “deranged” homeless man who had threatened to set the Castro ablaze, but police were unable to confirm that.

— Katie Worth

ArsonBay Area NewsCrimeCrime & CourtsLocalSan Francisco

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