Point Loma Each day, Jim Grant drives from Shelter Island to his job at Hammond and Masing General Contractors in Mira Mesa.
On Tuesday morning, December 11, as he approached Midway Drive on Rosecrans Street, he saw smoke to his left. "I'm not ordinarily a gawker, not in a hurry to run to badness," says Grant. "But I didn't hear any sirens, and that plume of smoke was big and black. So I called 911 on my cell phone and pulled a U-turn at Rosecrans and drove back a block."
Grant turned right on Cauby Street, which runs west between Walgreens and the Days Inn motel. He could then see that the smoke came from the back of a large apartment complex, the Loma Portal Apartments, on the south side of the street. Not wanting to get in the way of fire trucks, Grant drove 50 feet past the rising smoke and turned in to the parking lot of the next apartment building. "I drove in a ways," he says, "because I wanted to get a good angle to see where the smoke was coming from. I grabbed my camera and stepped over this wall right here."
Grant and I are now standing in the Loma Portal's lot. He points to his left, then to his right, indicating where at the time of the fire, three days earlier, several groups of onlookers stood around watching the smoking building. "I asked them, 'Has anybody gone in there to make sure all those units are empty?' " When the onlookers said no and none showed a sign of going in, Grant started moving toward the apartments. He wondered, "Where is everybody?" He kept expecting to see firefighters.
Grant, who is 52 years old, five feet ten inches tall, and 180 pounds, is leading me down a palm-lined sidewalk between two wings of the building. "I was looking up to my left in the direction of the smoke," he says, "and all of a sudden, around the corner, there were flames shooting out of those upstairs windows." Shattered glass lay on the concrete below. Before proceeding farther, Grant says he put his camera on the ground next to one of the palm trees. Later he took pictures.
Following Grant's route on the day of the fire, we now enter a back entrance to the Loma Portal's north wing. Immediately inside, a staircase rises to the right. Grant takes me to the second-floor landing, which doubles back toward another door. "This hallway door was closed," he tells me. "When I opened it, there was a big rush of hot air coming through. And I started down the hall yelling and banging hard on every door I saw. You're going to want to know what time this was, right? Well, here's my broken watch. It says 7:37."
Grant says he wasn't sure where any of the doors went. But plenty of smoke was rising from underneath the first door on the hallway's left. And it was very hot there. A little farther, the small square window that had covered an emergency fire hose was open. Grant and I speculate that someone may have tried to use the hose before escaping the building.
By now, Grant tells me, the whole hall was filling with smoke. I ask, "How was your visibility?"
"On the first two passes down that hallway, I could see," says Grant.
Grant kept pounding on the doors to his left and right. "I got all the way down here [the second-to-last door on the right], and when I banged on it, the door opened. And a woman is sitting there in a wheelchair holding a baby. Next to her is a boy about nine years old. I started yelling at her. 'You've got to get out of here right now,' I said. 'You can't stay here. The building's on fire. You've got to go.' She said something in broken English about putting on her undergarments. She mentioned that twice. The second time I was done having conversation. I reached down and grabbed the baby like this," says Grant, as he shows how he pulled the child, dressed in a one-piece jumper, into the crook of his arm. "And I pulled the baby to my chest. Then I grabbed the kid by the back of his neck, and we ran out, the boy at my side."
"Did the lady say anything further?"
"I don't think so," says Grant, "but she may have. Several fire alarms were going off, and you couldn't hear anything else.
"So I took the baby down, retracing my steps through the hall, down the stairwell, back to the sidewalk, and when I got out there, one of the guys who had been standing in the parking lot was coming my way. So I said, 'Here, take the baby.' And I told the kid, 'Stay with [this man].' Then I went back, up the stairs again, down the hall through a big cloud of smoke. It smelled like electrical wire and plastic burning, a very acidic effect in my nose and throat, pretty bad. And the same thing all over. I was banging on doors and yelling. When I got to the woman's door, I cracked it open, and I thought, 'Where is she?' Turns out she was in the bathroom, half dressed. It looked like she was putting on her leg braces, and maybe some undergarments. I yelled at her again, 'You've got to go. The building's on fire. Your kids are downstairs.' By then, I couldn't breathe. I thought, 'I better get out of here or they'll be dragging me out by my ankles.' "
"How was she doing?"
"She had been in the bathroom with the door shut. Whether there was an exhaust fan going in there, I don't know. But it was like she had this modesty thing that had kicked in, and she wanted to make sure she was properly dressed.
"Since I couldn't breathe, I knew I had to get a firefighter to help me carry her out. So I went back out of the building. But there weren't any firemen there yet."