|With yellow police tape blocking sidewalks and smoke lingering in the air, onlookers Monday morning peered at the building at University Avenue and Bryant Street in downtown Palo Alto, where a fire had erupted Sunday night at about 9:30 p.m. and grew to a four-alarm blaze.
University Avenue from Ramona to Florence streets were still closed to traffic. A Palo Alto fire truck had a ladder extended to the burned-out roof of the building that has a Walgreen's on the ground floor and offices on the second floor.
Looking through an upstairs window from the street, the sky could be seen through a partially destroyed the roof.
The first alarm was sounded at 9:35 p.m. Sunday, startling four workers in Walgreens. They made it out of the building safely and notified General Manager Sergio Culmenero.
Culmenero, a Sunnyvale resident who has managed the business for 10 months, stood on the corner of University Avenue and Bryant Street Monday morning, staring across the street at his darkened storefront.
He said he had never experienced anything like Sunday's fire and said he has no idea how much damage was caused within the store.
Police, however, peg the damage at $2-3 million.
According to a placard beside the door, Liberate Technologies and the San Jose Mercury News occupy the second floor of the building, where the fire broke out. However, the Mercury News no longer has a bureau in Palo Alto, and Liberate Technologies, once based in San Mateo, sold its assets in 2005. The office space was mostly vacant, according to property manager Jim Baer. The building owners were planning on renovating the second-floor offices beginning in the next 60 days, Baer said.
Witnesses said the fire blew out second-floor windows, sending shards of glass onto the sidewalk. In the end, more than 50 firefighters from Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara County fought the blaze for five hours, with thick plumes of smoke rising from the roof while firefighters tried to douse the flames. At one point, firefighters cleared out, anticipating the imminent collapse of the roof. They were able to pour water on the fire from above after the hole opened up.
Firefighters became concerned Sunday night when flames and embers began blowing across Bryant Street toward other buildings on University Avenue. Police moved the crowd of onlookers back a block from the scene. Firefighters continued to work on the upper floor and on the roof Monday morning, as passersby sipped coffee, snapped photos and gawked.
The cause of the fire is unknown, but arson investigators were on the scene Monday morning along with police detectives, Police Agent Rich Bullerjahn said. A federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigator was working with detectives and arson investigators from the Santa Clara County Arson Investigation Task Force.
Walgreen's, a Subway sandwich shop and other businesses suffered smoke and water damage.
Nearby buildings, housing Satura Cakes and a sports memorabilia store, had water in the basement but no smoke damage, Bullerjahn said.
Electricity was expected to be restored to the 300 block of University Avenue sometime Monday morning, Bullerjahn said.
According to county records, the building is owned by Milpitas and Dixon LLC of Los Altos. The building is at least 70 years old, based on historical photos that show it once housed a J.C. Penney.
Staff Writer Molly Tanenbaum contributed to this report.
— Don Kazak and Becky Trout
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