When Chester Chen heard an explosion beneath his apartment Sunday, he knew the clock was ticking before his entire complex was up in flames.
Chen, 54, heard the earthquake-like bang in his garage beneath his apartment and ran with his wife to remove their BMW motorcycle and three cars, especially their huge 2001 Volkswagen Eurovan camper, which had a full tank of gas, from the fiery garage.
“If that [Eurovan] exploded, this whole building’s gone,” Chen said. “I wasn’t worried about my own health and my own safety.”
The Volkswagen, his motorcycle, the rear of his wife’s Acura MDX and everything else in their garage were toasted. But the North County Fire Authority arrived four minutes after the fire started at 12:02 p.m. and were able to knock out the two-alarm fire within 20 to 30 minutes, Chief Ron Myers said. Chen tried to help set up the hose and use an extinguisher to put out the car fires when firefighters arrived.
A cut to Chen’s hand from when he punched through his garage window, and first-degree burns to his arm, were the only injuries associated with the fire at the apartment complex at 45 Joy Ave., a short, dead-end street just west of Bayshore Boulevard. An unknown number of residents were likely to be displaced Sunday night from the complex, which has garages on the ground floor and two stories of apartments above, Myers said.
“I hear a bang, and I thought it was an earthquake,” Chen said. “I used my hand to break the glass and open the garage and flames started shooting out.”
In addition to North County, the South San Francisco and San Bruno fire departments and eight total engine and ladder truck companies responded to the fire, the cause of which was unknown by investigators Sunday.
Chen and his wife also saved their pet bird, Walter, who they have had for more than 20 years.
Chen’s neighbors, Izumi and Taro Miyoshi, ran for their 5-year-old daughter when they heard the explosion.
Flames did rise into the Chens’ apartment that they have had since 1982 but their neighbors’ homes only suffered smoke damage, Myers said. An eight-unit apartment complex behind the fire-impacted building was unharmed.