Tragedy was narrowly averted early Monday after a two-alarm fire erupted at a ramshackle residential hotel in downtown Lodi early Monday, forcing dozens of residents onto the street below.
No one was hurt, but as many as 50 were left homeless.
“We really dodged a bullet,” said Lodi Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Allegre, standing outside the Star Hotel at 22 S. Main St. “I was expecting to see bodies in this building.”
As firefighters dug through mounds of blackened rubble Monday afternoon, Allegre described a chaotic scene of dense, nearly impenetrable smoke as residents throughout the three-story hotel fled the building front and rear. The fire started in a rear room on the second floor, burning behind a wall before racing up the third floor, destroying many of the single-occupancy rooms in its path.
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Lodi fire crews pulled up to the Star just after 2 a.m. They saw light smoke curling from the building, one in a tight row of century-old residential hotels now home to men and women on the city’s margins.
The small crew quickly called in a second alarm, bringing firefighters from Stockton, Mokulumne, Woodbridge and other communities. Still, it took the combined crews some two hours to control the blaze. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries, Allegre said. One was treated at a local hospital for burns to his neck and later released.
The Star and the other residential hotels on Main Street have worried firefighters here for years. Allegre said the Star, packed with residents, has no sprinkler system. Hotel occupants said the building’s alarms didn’t work either, leaving many to fend for themselves and pound on their neighbors’ doors to roust them ahead of the flames.
“This is one of the buildings that scares us,” Allegre said. “We prevented a tragedy here in my eyes.”
Online property records listed the Star Hotel’s owner as Kanu Patel. A person reached Monday afternoon at the telephone number listed for Patel answered briefly before hanging up. A second call went to voice mail.
Resident Frank Cloak, 52, was among the dozens of hotel residents hunkered down Monday at the Lodi Grape Festival fairgrounds, 413 E. Lockeford St., where the American Red Cross had opened a shelter before dawn.
“I was just falling asleep when my neighbor banged on the door telling me to get out,” said Cloak. He slouched on a fairgrounds bench, his left foot wrapped in a walking boot from a previous procedure. “The fire alarms never went off. The fire extinguishers didn’t even work.”
Allegre later said his crews didn’t hear alarms either. “We’re looking into that,” the battalion chief said.
The American Red Cross is preparing for more arrivals at the fairgrounds, Red Cross spokesman Stephen Walsh said Monday morning.
Authorities gave the go-ahead to open the shelter in the hours after the blaze. Walsh said for many chased out of the hotel and into the early morning chill, this temporary shelter “is not an overnight situation.”
He said he expects some hotel residents to be housed at the fairgrounds’ main exhibit hall for several days. The Salvation Army has also joined the effort, preparing dinner Monday night and morning meals Tuesday for displaced residents, said Salvation Army Maj. Mark Thielenhaus.
On a chill, blustery Monday, many of the residents displaced by the fire were “looking for a place to get out of the wind,” Walsh said.
Many of the Star’s residents had few possessions even before the fire, and were all but homeless. It’s unclear where they will go.
“We don’t throw people out on the street,” Walsh said. “We never say, ‘Time’s up.’ ”