Tenderloin arson suspect looked dazed during fire

A 64-year-old man suspected of lighting his Tenderloin apartment on fire told a neighbor, “It looks like something out of a movie” while he watched it burn Sunday morning.

The inferno started in Paul Williams’ apartment — No. 6 at 550 Leavenworth St., not No. 7 as previously reported — around
8:30 a.m. and quickly burst through the window and ripped through nine other units in the 26-unit complex. The nearly century-old building was still uninhabitable Monday.

Police estimate the fire caused about $850,000 in damage to the four-story building.

Williams was handcuffed within an hour because “after making contact with him it was determined he started the fire,” police Officer Albie Esparza said. He was charged with arson and possession of “an ignited source,” which Esparza said could be two rocks or a lighter, among other things.

Williams is scheduled to be arraigned at 9 a.m. today.

Neighbor Matt Fondacaro, who lived in unit No. 7, said he saw Williams kneeling outside his door when everyone else was running for the stairs.

“He just stayed there and I left,” Fondacaro said. “Then outside, he came up behind me and I looked at him like, ‘Hey, dude, what’s happening?’ And he said, ‘It’s like something out of a movie.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He was not responsive.”

Other residents in the building said they watched Williams sit at the bus stop at the corner in a daze right after he walked out of the burning building. They described him as a quiet neighbor who normally kept to himself.

It took more than 60 firefighters about an hour to contain the flames that had been burning for about 10 minutes before they arrived. Meanwhile, dozens of residents and surrounding neighbors — many in their pajamas — stood on the sidewalk gazing up at the glow.

Police and fire officials have not revealed how the fire started or what the motive was.

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

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