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$2.5-Million Fire Wrecks Car Dealership

December 16, 1987|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

A three-alarm fire that started in a storage area of the Pearson Ford dealership on El Cajon Boulevard prompted authorities to evacuate 150 people late Tuesday. More than 150 San Diego firefighters battled the blaze.

The estimated damage to the dealership was $2.5 million, San Diego Fire Department spokeswoman Ida Cheney said.

The fire started in an upstairs parts storage area, then spread into "most of the four-building complex of the dealership," Cheney said. Firefighters were initially dispatched to the dealership at Fairmount Avenue and El Cajon at 6:20 p.m.

No One Hurt in Fire

Cheney said no one was hurt in the fire, although 10 people were in the showroom. The fire started in the building directly behind and north of the showroom, where two employees were finishing up after the service department had closed at 5:30 p.m. The next building north is a large parts storage building. North of that is the service department's building--which had 150 new cars in it.

The blaze was quickly declared a three-alarm fire, and authorities evacuated people from apartments, houses and businesses for two blocks east and west of the dealership and a one-block area to the north, Cheney said.

People began filtering back into the area, she said, after the Fire Department's hazardous materials team determined that there was no paint or other chemicals in the building that could explode.

Firefighters late Tuesday were perched on ladders, training their water hoses on the service building, which was billowing with gray, stinging smoke. Cheney said the firefighters were hoping to keep the flames from the new cars atop that building.

Heard Popping Noises

Mark Grundstrom, a service manager, was in the passageway beneath the room where the fire started.

"We heard circuit breakers popping from the other side of the wall," he said. "We heard a rumbling like an earthquake. We went out to check the circuit breakers and we saw sparks coming down from the roof.

"People were riding down the street honking their horns," trying to alert Pearson Ford employees to the fire, Grundstrom said.

Don Reed, co-owner of the dealership, said the room where the fire started is used for sheet metal storage.

"There's a lot of rubber accessories there, also," Reed said. "Things like fan belts and hoses."

He said he was surprised by the intensity of the fire because the buildings are all made of concrete block.

Mary Johnson, a city maintenance worker who was visiting her brother in a nearby apartment complex on 43rd Street, said her nephew ran into the apartment screaming that there was a fire.

'It Just Exploded'

"At first . . . we saw smoke, and then there was fire, just a little bit," Johnson said. "Everyone was running around, yelling 'Fire! Fire!'

"Then all of a sudden the building went up--all of a sudden it just exploded with a popping sound. It was out of control."

Keith Holter, who lives at 4337 43rd St., was one of those evacuated by fire officials. He and his wife and daughter stood looking nervously at the fire with other onlookers.

"My daughter ran in the house and said there was fire coming out of a ventilator on the roof, the center ventilator," Holter said, pointing to the parts building.

Holter said six trucks responded within minutes of their telephone call, but they sat there for about 20 minutes before anyone turned water on the fire.

Cheney said the delay was caused, in part, because a motorist ran over the main four-inch water line connecting hoses to a fire hydrant at El Cajon and Fairmount.

Reed said the dealership moved to the El Cajon address in 1964. He and his partner, John McCallan, bought it four years ago.

Police officers rerouted traffic from El Cajon Boulevard for several blocks in either direction to keep motorists away from the fire.

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