OAKLAND -- An early morning fire Thursday in West Oakland destroyed a senior housing complex and damaged BART tracks, stranding many of the 184,000 commuters who travel daily through the Transbay Tube on the train.
BART worked feverishly for nearly 12 hours at the West Oakland station to fix the damage and avoid a repeat of the gridlocked morning rush hour that left commuters lined up along several blocks in downtown Oakland waiting for buses to take them into the city. Service was restored by 3:45 p.m., with some delays throughout Thursday evening.
Ferries and carpools were packed and AC Transit added 30 extra buses for stranded commuters.
Calling his commute a "nightmare," Jacquinn Scales, 29, was one of hundreds of travelers in downtown Oakland waiting to hop on a bus to San Francisco.
"I had to stand in the hot sun in downtown Oakland in a line that went from the 19th Street (station) and wrapped around the Paramount Theatre," said Scales, who lives in San Francisco but stayed overnight Wednesday with friends in Oakland.
"I was two hours late for work and then the AC Transit bus' air conditioning wasn't working, so I had to endure hot temperatures for a long commute into San Francisco.''
Authorities are still piecing together exactly how the fire started.
A security guard watching over the senior housing complex woke up five construction workers asleep in a trailer at the site, likely saving their lives,
Flames about 100 feet high enveloped the building's wood framing and melted nearby streetlights and signs. All that remains of the Red Star Senior apartments is the building's skeleton, but no firefighters or residents were injured in the blaze, fire officials said.
Arson has not been ruled out in the three-alarm fire that broke out shortly at 2:15 a.m. at an unfinished five-story senior affordable-housing complex at 1396 Fifth St., directly across from the West Oakland BART station, said Batallion Chief Lisa Baker.
Police took statements for all the construction workers and the security guard, but they were not available for comment Thursday. They are not considered suspects.
Guard saw men
Kim Newbill, an office manager with the guard's employer, Command International Security Services, said three men chased away the security guard 15 minutes before the first flames shot into the night sky. Police have not made any arrests and are investigating along with the Oakland Fire Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"He saw three people coming to the construction site who looked suspicious," Newbill said. When he told them to leave, one of the men jumped a security fence to enter the building site and another man brandished a weapon that the guard couldn't clearly see. The guard ran to a nearby sandwich shop, but when he saw smoke billowing from the site 15 minutes later, Newbill said, he ran back to the on-site construction trailer to retrieve his phone and dial 911.
The guard was not injured, authorities said.
The construction site is the former 1.5-acre Red Star Yeast manufacturing plant.
Long travel times
Thursday was a nightmare for commuters.
Melanie Johnson, a single mother who lives in Berkeley and commutes into San Francisco three times a week with her two children for child-care purposes, said the evening commute on the train was emptier than usual and slower than normal.
"Usually, you're wall-to-wall people, but maybe everybody was scared away," said Johnson, who transferred trains at the 19th Street station in Oakland on Thursday evening.
Malcolm Talcott, of Piedmont, said he was glad he chose the BART over his usual bus trip home from San Francisco.
"It was a nice, peaceful commute. I'm glad I'm not on the bridge."
The West Oakland station did not sustain fire damage, but key supports to the electrified third rail were damaged. Repair costs were not yet available.
BART replaced a nearly 400-foot section of the third rail outside the station, said spokesman Jim Allison said. PG&E also removed two power poles that were at risk of toppling onto the track.
Under construction was a $28 million, 119-unit affordable senior housing complex. No city money was used in the project, which was being developed by The Michaels Development Co. and LINC Housing Corp., said Christia Katz Mulvey, Oakland housing development coordinator.
Calls to the developers were not returned.
BART General Manager Grace Crunican said Thursday that she thought the bus and ferry systems had done a good job responding to the loss of BART Transbay Tube service, but there was no way they could fully offset the disruption.
"I don't think it would sit well with taxpayers to have 200 buses and drivers sitting around ready to go if something like this happens. It would be very expensive," Crunican said. Still, she added that BART and other transit officials in the Bay Area would discuss Thursday's service disruption to determine if their efforts could be improved.
Staff writers Harry Harris, Chris De Benedetti, Angela Woodall, Erin Ivie, Rick Hurd and Denis Cuff contributed to this report.