On a sunny Friday in October, Patricia Lilavois took the bus from her inner Richmond home out to Ocean Beach. She stopped in a cafe for a latte, and then received a phone call that would change her life forever.
It was an unidentified number so she didn’t answer it. A few moments later, a text came in from the same number. Her apartment building was on fire.
She hurried to catch the bus home, unsure of the extent of the fire. Another friend from the neighborhood called to tell her there was a big fire on 2nd Avenue, and Patricia replied “That’s MY building that’s on fire!”
When she arrived at the intersection of 2nd and Geary, it quickly became clear this was no small blaze. Fire engines and police were blocking off the intersection, hoses snaked through the street, and firefighters seemed to be everywhere.
Smoke was still billowing from the building, even though firefighters had managed to put out most of the fire by the time she arrived.
“I was in shock,” Patricia said. “It was such a wild experience to see my building on fire.”
Tenants were told by firefighters that the accidental fire started in the ground floor of the building, in an area where one of the tenants, Arne Jin An Wong, refurbished surfboards to send to a children’s program in the Philippines. Wong’s father owns the property.
The exact cause of the fire is still unknown to Patricia and the other tenants. Some of the chemicals used in refurbishing the surfboards were engulfed in the fire.
“It was so toxic in there, it was awful,” said building tenant Brigid Donovan, who rushed home from her job as a Nurse Practitioner at SF General Hospital after the landlady called to tell her the building was on fire.
“It was overwhelming,” Brigid said when she arrived on the scene. “I felt a little bit numb. There was nothing I could do, everything was gone.”
Patricia and Brigid were both permitted by the SFFD to go inside their apartments and fetch what belongings they could. It was a grim scene.
“It was a shock to see how bad things were,” Patricia said. “Some stuff you can’t recognize because it’s melted. It’s so weird, you just don’t think. Your mind just doesn’t help you in that situation.”
A kind neighbor across the street opened up their garage and told Patricia to stash what she could inside. It wasn’t much – some clothes, a wet laptop, a rocking chair and other bits of furniture, a houseplant she’d had since 1976, and some photos.
Each floor of the building houses two units that stretch from the front of the building to the back. The fire consumed the back half of the building, so for both Patricia and Brigid, their apartments looked mostly fine in the front, but like barren, charred hulls in the back.
“I went into the building right after the fire and pulled out what I could from the front of the house, some clothes, jewelry,” Brigid said.
Combined with the bag she brought home from work with hospital scrubs in it, that was all Brigid had left to her name.
“It’s a bizarre feeling to have nothing but what is in your hands,” Brigid said.
Consumed in the fire were momentos from her father’s life. He passed away 10 years ago, and it’s those kinds of personal items that have taken the biggest emotional toll on Brigid.
Patricia echoes that sentiment, telling us, “My belongings were mostly sentimental”.
All 5 of the tenants at 425 2nd Avenue were displaced by the fire, as well as approximately 13 other people in the two adjoining buildings which sustained serious damage.
Patricia spent the first night after the fire across the street in a neighbor’s spare bedroom. The same neighbor who opened their garage to store her belongings, and brought her a soothing cup of tea when she arrived on the scene of the fire.
“It was the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. Such a loving thing to do,” Patricia remembers.
After that she headed to Santa Rosa to house sit for a friend while they were away for a week. It gave her a chance to wash her clothes for the first time (“The smoke doesn’t come out of your clothes”) and work on a plan for where she would go next.
“You try to go wherever you’re not going to inconvenience people,” Patricia said.
She eventually landed in Pacifica, CA where she is staying with her mother. Patricia has been back to the burned out building 4 or 5 times since the fire to look for any missed belongings, but says it “gets worse and worse because of the mold, you have to wear hazmat protection.”
The building has since been condemned and it’s estimated it will be at least a year before anyone could reasonably expect to move back in the building. That’s assuming the owner decides to renovate.
Brigid stayed with friends in the neighborhood the night of the fire, then stayed in Berkeley to house sit for a vacationing friend, and spent some nights at a hotel.
“I had grown to love the inner Richmond,” Brigid said, and she had a strong desire to find another home in the neighborhood.
As luck would have it, a 1-bedroom apartment came up for rent on 11th Avenue and Clement just a couple of weeks after the fire. Brigid went to see the apartment and after chatting with the landlord, realized that his son was one of the firefighters that had responded to the 2nd Avenue blaze.
Brigid was able to rent the apartment but recreating her home has been a slow, exhausting process. She first bought a bed and has slowly been buying furnishings and necessities to fill her new space.
Patricia has yet to find a new home in the inner Richmond, but hopes to soon. She’s worried that the rising rents may price her out of the neighborhood that she too has grown to love after almost 8 years on 2nd Avenue.
“When you lose so much at once, it’s quite something. You’re just catapulted out of this nurturing environment. Not just your home, but your community,” said Patricia, who is a known as a friendly regular at the businesses around her apartment.
As devastating as the fire was to her life, Patricia said that the kindness she has experienced from firefighters, neighbors and friends has made it less traumatic.
Nevertheless she recognizes that one thing could have made the experience even less jarring: renter’s insurance.
“Unless you had your own renter’s insurance, nothing was covered,” Patricia said. “There is no restitution, no compensation for displacement. Nothing through the landlord’s insurance. You are solely responsible for your own possessions.”
She had never thought seriously about renter’s insurance, nor had Brigid who said that was mostly because she really only thought about it in the event of theft.
Most renters insurance policies offer you coverage for the theft, loss or destruction of personal belongings in the event of a fire, storm or other peril. None of which are covered by building policies that the owner may have.
Even more importantly, in a high-rent market like San Francisco, renter’s insurance can offset the costs associated with relocation or temporary housing.
Renters insurance can be as little as $20 per month, or the cost of a few Starbucks lattes a month.
“My one piece of advice? Get renters insurance!” Patricia said.
It’s only been a month since the fire, but both women are remarkably calm and optimistic after such a traumatic experience. As the saying goes, this type of life-altering experience can really put things in perspective.
Patricia, who will be 60 in March, says it has “reaffirmed her faith in humanity” after all of the generous acts of kindness she received from firefighters, neighbors and friends. Both women hailed the actions of the firefighters that responded to the fire, calling them kind, respectful and courageous.
And despite the lack of communication from their former landlord, the tenants have kept in touch.
“The three of us are staying pretty close through this process,” Brigid said, referring to herself, Patricia and another single woman who lived in an adjoining apartment. “We’ve been helpful to each other as we figure all this out.”
“For me this means moving forward like I’ve never imagined. In that sense, I am embracing this as ok, my life has changed, so let me go with that,” Patricia said.
“I would like to do some part-time work, be of service, and have a place to feel really connected again. I don’t want to lose my connection to the community I developed.”
Thank you to Patricia and Brigid for sharing their experience with us. We wish them the best of luck in rebuilding their lives, hopefully right here again in the inner Richmond.