SAN JOSE -- A raging fire sent flames high into the twilight sky and tore through an industrial warehouse in San Jose on Thursday morning, choking the air with smoke and spurring home evacuations, freeway gridlock, power outages and school closures as firefighters spent most of the day battling and then stamping out remnants of the massive blaze.
"All the flames started to come out, at least 50 feet high," said John Aguiar, whose home on West Court faced the burning building.
Aguiar said he was getting ready for a day of installing drywall around 5:20 a.m. when he spotted the flames and called 911. Then he and a neighbor started knocking on doors up and down West Court, which abuts the 120,000 square foot building on East Julian Street a few blocks west of Highway 101.
The fire quickly reached five alarms -- which occurs at most a handful of times a year -- owing largely to the sheer size of the structure, and upward of 100 firefighters were summoned to try to keep the blaze from spreading. All the while, explosions shook the neighborhood as tanks and transformers were claimed by the flames.
Some of the firefighters had just started winding down from putting out an intense house fire on South 17th Street when they were called back into action.
"We had released some firefighters and checked their vital signs and ... another structure fire," Capt. Barry Ehlers said.
The flames continued consuming the warehouse, which was still partially occupied with roof tile, Sheetrock and plumbing companies as well as a hay barn, but a large portion was vacant. Residents flushed from their homes stood haplessly on a sidewalk as the roof collapsed and made the murky morning sky even darker as its tar and gravel composition burned.
No injuries were reported, but the fire's effects were strongly felt throughout the region. The orange and red flames that lit up the morning darkness drew attention from motorists on Highway 101, turning the South Bay artery into a virtual parking lot, worsened when authorities closed ramp access to East Julian Street.
Classes at Rocketship Discovery Prep school and Empire Gardens elementary school were cancelled because of the campuses' proximity to the fire. Beyond the residents who evacuated, others in the surrounding regions were advised to shelter in place to keep out of the smoke, among them students at Anne Darling Elementary and San Jose High schools.
For at least a couple of hours, PG&E shut off electricity to more than 4,000 customers, partly to aid firefighters who found themselves retreating after each transformer blew.
Neither the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health nor the Bay Area Air Quality Management District assessed any lasting effects from the fire and smoke, nor any reports of major respiratory distress at area hospitals.
Ralph Castro, a West Court resident whose backyard backs up against the warehouse property, left his home minutes before the fire broke out and came home a few hours later to learn that at least three of his cars were damaged or destroyed by pieces falling from the building. But fate spared the 1968 Firebird he was painstakingly restoring.
A smattering of outbuildings along the fence line shared with the warehouse were also damaged, but firefighters successfully kept the flames from damaging any of the main structures.
"They did a real good job," Castro said. "Thank God they kept the fire away from the houses."
As of Thursday afternoon, all that was really known about the origins of the fire is that it started in the north end of the large warehouse. Aguiar said when he walks his 8-year-old son to school at Rocketship he often sees transients coming in and out of the vacant sections of the warehouse, where they easily peel away the siding to get inside. Investigators did not comment on what may have caused the massive blaze.
Robert Stager of San Jose was actually headed to a 6 a.m. job interview near the warehouse -- which actually housed the insulation he was applying to install -- and got there 40 minutes ahead of time. While trying to find the hiring office, he may have been the first person to call in the fire.
"I accidentally made a wrong turn toward the railroad tracks, and saw an exterior fire along the side of the building," Stager said.
He called 911, then pulled out his cellphone and started shooting video.
"I'm pretty sure when I saw that, it was not that big at all. Little by little, bam, bam, bam, and there's more than 100 firefighters," Stager said.
Stager still made his job interview, even with the warehouse burning not too far away.
"It was a trippy morning," he said. "Hopefully I got the job."
Staff writer Rick Hurd contributed to this story.