Chief: East Palo Alto apartment fire not intentional

75 displaced in Newell Court blaze will be out for several weeks

See video of the fire, submitted by John Woodell.

Investigators have learned that Thursday's two-alarm blaze at an apartment complex in East Palo Alto was not intentionally set, a fire chief said Friday afternoon.

Firefighters responded to the fire at a multi-building complex at 1 Newell Court at about 6:05 p.m., Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.

Arriving crews put out the fire a short time later and no one was injured but more than 75 people were displaced by the fire and will have to find alternate housing for several weeks, Schapelhouman said.

"The fire was so hot in the corridors that it melted the smoke detectors," he said.

Schapelhouman said he spoke to a building manager, who said the work that needs to be done on the damaged units might take "some time."

In all, one unit burned in the fire, and another three to five

units sustained significant water damage, he said.

Schapelhouman said the cause of the blaze appears accidental and that it was not maliciously set.

A damage estimate was not immediately available.

The Newell Court apartments have worried fire and police officials since former owner, Page Mill Properties, defaulted on its loan and the properties were repossessed by the bank, officials said.

At one time, conditions were so hazardous at the complex that fire and police officials considered evacuating all seven buildings, Schapelhouman said.

The two-alarm fire, which drew fire-department units from East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Redwood City, Woodside and Palo Alto, started in a third-story apartment at 6:05 p.m. at 1 Newell Court, which is located at West Bayshore Road and Newell Court, he said.

The fire spread to the balcony. Six units were damaged, including three directly below the top unit from water damage, he said. No one was injured.

But the extent of the damage won't be known until next week, he said. Larmar Properties, property managers for the bank, will board up the structures and keep them on fire watch to ensure they do not pose a further hazard to the public or the fire department, he said.

"Based upon the significance and the severity of the fire, the entire complex will be closed," he said.

Schapelhouman credited quick control of the fire with the department's aggressive response.

But the outcome could have been devastating, with a large loss of life and many injuries, Schapelhouman said. The apartments are on the fire department's target hazard list as being of significant life risk to the public, he said.

"The stars were lined up tonight. If there's such as thing as luck, we got lucky," he said.

The structures were once part of the vast East Palo Alto holdings of bankrupt Palo Alto developer Page Mill Properties. A complex maze of apartment buildings covers nearly a quarter mile on the west side of U.S. Highway 101 and bordered by San Francisquito Creek and Newell Road.

Schapelhouman said the configuration makes reaching inner buildings difficult for fire equipment. Firefighters and residents got lucky because the blaze was at the most accessible apartment on the top floor of a building adjacent to West Bayshore.

"If it had been in the middle of the complex we couldn't have controlled it," he said.

He said there are 35 units in the building and 30 were occupied. Firefighters have been concerned about a high occupancy rate within the units, he added.

"This is where we see issues of the economy. People have doubled, tripled and quadrupled the number of residents in the apartments. There's a real potential if we end up with fire in these units for multiple injuries and fatalities. That's real," he said.

Schapelhouman did not blame the landlord, as the apartment occupancy often increases as financial need becomes greater. Behind closed doors in the privacy of their apartments, no one really knows what is going on, he said.

Fire officials do know that residents tend to store many belongings, with whole families sleeping on mattresses on the floor in every room, he added.

The buildings were built in the 1960s and 1970s, prior to sprinkler ordinances, he said. But they also did not have fire alarms when Page Mill owned the buildings, he said. Fire inspectors worked with Larmar Properties to recently have alarms installed and inspected in the units.

But "did they work when we needed them to? Did anyone pull them?" Schapelhouman said.

Officials don't yet have that answer; the fire was called in by a person on the street, he said.

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