SAN FRANCISCO — An explosion ripped through a warehouse near San Francisco Bay Friday, injuring 19 people and setting off a fire that swept through three adjacent buildings covering an entire city block, authorities said.
Fire officials were concerned that as many as 30 people might have been trapped in the blaze which caused an estimated $8 million to $10 million in damage to the Bay View Industrial Park.
"There is a strong possibility that at least three people are still in the building," said Fire Capt. Richard Crispin, adding that the number could be as high as 30. The heat from the blaze was "hot enough to cremate people," he said.
Deputy Fire Chief Charles Cresci, however, said firefighters aren't certain that anyone was trapped.
'We Just Don't Know'
"We don't know," he said. "Three people, 10 people, 30 people--we just don't know."
Firefighters were still fighting the blaze late Friday night and said they wouldn't be able to enter the buildings to search for survivors before early today because of the intense heat, which sent smoke billowing 3,000 feet into the air.
Of the 19 people injured, three were listed in critical condition at San Francisco General Hospital, suffering from third-degree burns and "breathing problems," a hospital spokesman said.
The cause of the explosion, which hit shortly after 3 p.m., was not known. Fire officials said the blaze burned out of control for more than three hours and was finally contained at 6:30 p.m.
The sprawling warehouse complex housed 120 businesses--among them a paint shop, photography laboratory and a carpentry shop--and about a dozen artists' lofts. The roof collapsed on the building hit by the explosion, and only one of its walls was left standing after the explosion and fire.
Witnesses told Crispin that walls on the building's second floor "extended eerily" just before that floor collapsed. The force of the blast knocked out windows and blew several steel doors from their hinges, he said.
The explosion, which was heard three miles away, shook the ground and rattled windows, witnesses said. Businesses and homes within a three-block area were evacuated, and about 4,000 customers were left without electrical power for more than an hour, officials said.
"I got knocked on my back," said M. J. Savage, a cabinetmaker who escaped with cuts on his hands. "I got up real quick. I looked up and saw everything collapsing on me, so I started running out the door."
Everything Crashed In
"Just everything came crashing in," said Edward Gottesman, 34, who operates a woodworking business in the warehouse, as he sat on a nearby sidewalk, his face bleeding.
Ann Bass, 28, one of Gottesman's assistants, said she thought everyone in the warehouse had escaped, but added: "You couldn't see anything. Everything was flying, there was stuff everywhere."
Louis Ned, who owns an auto repair shop across the street from the warehouse, said that the complex is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week operation.
"There are always people working there," he said. "There are about 50 to 60 people there at three o'clock. There have to be people still in there because only 15 to 20 came out." Ned said he had just left work and was a few blocks away when he heard the explosion. He returned to his shop to find a steel garage door blown off.
"A friend of mine who lives in a trailer was blown out of his bed and out of his trailer," he said.
One woman who lives near the explosion leaned out of her second-story window and yelled to a neighbor: "Did you feel it? I thought it was an earthquake."
Times staff writer Edward J. Boyer contributed to this story.