BERKELEY -- Fire investigators are unable to determine the cause of a fire that injured a homeless person and caused $10,000 in damage to 100 recycling bins, the Berkeley fire chief said Monday.

The blaze started at 2:41 p.m. Wednesday at Second Street and Hearst Avenue under the University Avenue freeway overpass. Amid the investigation into the fire -- which snarled traffic along Interstate 80 for hours -- a story of heroics emerged.

Three Berkeley police officers helped save two people trapped by the fire, said Sgt. Chris Stines, president of the Berkeley Police Association, which represents rank-and-file officers.

Berkeley police and firefighters investigate the scene of a fire under the University Avenue overpass near Second Street in Berkeley, Calif., on Wednesday,
Berkeley police and firefighters investigate the scene of a fire under the University Avenue overpass near Second Street in Berkeley, Calif., on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Around 2:45 p.m., Berkeley police Lt. Andrew Rateaver spotted the fire and called for emergency backup. His call was immediately answered by two special victims unit detectives who were nearby, interviewing a crime victim.

"I could hear a man screaming and he was locked inside a chain-link fence where the fire was roaring out of control," said Detective Melissa Kelly, one of the officers who rushed to the fire and was assisted by Detective Ana Baber. "We couldn't get the gate open and had to reach under the fence to rescue (one) man and get him away from the burning fire," Kelly added.

The man rescued was disabled, missing a leg and would have likely not been able to escape the fire on his own, police said.


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As the flames rose 12 feet in the air, the three officers vaguely made out the silhouette of another man who was trapped in the locked enclosure under the overpass. With the help of a good Samaritan who had stopped to assist, the officers pulled the man to safety through a gap in the fence.

"The fire was so aggressive and it all happened so fast -- I have no doubt, that without our swift action, this situation could have easily ended in tragedy for the trapped men," said Kelly.

Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong said fire investigators can't "isolate a specific ignition source" of the fire. A homeless man was slightly injured and refused medical attention, authorities said.

The fire was controlled in less than 20 minutes, Dong said.

The blaze caused loud blasts that led to erroneous reports that the fire was sparked by a methamphetamine lab.

Follow Kristin J. Bender at Twitter.com/kbender.