The Sara Frances Hometel succumbed to its second three-alarm fire in four months Thursday afternoon, gutted by a blaze that forced firefighters to retreat from the weakened building.
None of the street people who neighbors said had taken up residence in the three-story 10th Avenue structure was injured, though firefighters did pull one sleeping transient from the second floor of the building shortly after they arrived, said Sandy Fields, a detective for Metro Arson Strike Team.
Arson squad members were still trying to determine the origin of the blaze Thursday evening and were seeking two men and a woman seen leaving the hotel about the time the fire began. No damage estimate was set.
Angry neighbors of the 95-year-old Sara Frances, who said they had watched transients coming and going through a side window and rear entrance of the vacant burned-out structure in recent months, speculated that one of the street people was responsible for the fire.
B.J. Stephens, manager of the Goodyear Auto Service Center at 1045 Broadway, said he suspected that derelicts who slept in the building had set the fire in vengeance for his many calls to police to report crimes at the Sara Frances and his store.
"I think they're burning down the building because they're (angry)," Stephens said. "I think the street people are just getting mad at me."
Stephens said appliances worth $5,000 to $10,000 were stolen from his store Tuesday night. Police arrested several people on the roof of his building and at the Sara Frances on Wednesday. "They were living on my roof," he said.
Timothy Bowles, who said he lives across the street from the Sara Frances, claimed he had made about 30 calls to police and fire officials warning them that the street people living in the vacant hotel would cause trouble.
"I knew this was going to happen again, sooner or later," Bowles said. "I'm really upset about this. There was no actual reason for this to happen. The police should have taken an order to the owner to have it boarded up."
Owner Seymour (Rocky) Reichbart could not be reached for comment.
Greg Johnson, 31, who said he sometimes slept in the Sara Frances, estimated that 15 to 20 people typically stayed there each night. Inside, he said, the problems were "drugs, drugs, drugs."
"We'd catch people over there with the needles in their arms," Stephens said.
Formerly known as the Keystone Hotel, the Sara Frances sustained $500,000 damage in a three-alarm fire Dec. 20 that injured five people and sent thick clouds of smoke and dusty red flames above downtown San Diego in the late afternoon. Resident Reginald Hughes was convicted in February of recklessly starting the fire.
There also were less serious fires at the building in January, 1982, and January, 1980.
The scene was repeated Thursday, as three alarms brought 80 firefighters to the building at 943 10th Ave. shortly after 1:30 p.m. As smoke billowed from the roof, firefighters went inside to fight the blaze. But they retreated at 2:08 when heat and the weakened building made it too dangerous. They continued to pour water on the fire from aerial hoses.
"When we go to a defensive mode and pull all our people out, we're writing the building off, essentially," said Ron Davis, community education officer for the San Diego Fire Department.
Firefighters were not able to declare the blaze under control until 3:04 p.m., when flames had burned through the roof. Soon after, they went back inside to finish off the fire and sift through the debris.