SAN JOSE — A heavy fire broke out in the heart of downtown San Jose on Thursday morning, largely gutting a building that housed some of the area’s most popular bars and eateries that had either been shuttered or pushed to the brink of closure by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The four-alarm blaze was initially reported at 10:19 a.m. at 81 East San Fernando St., according to the San Jose Fire Department. It was steadily raised in its severity classification within an hour, but a fire spokesperson said the two-story building was unoccupied at the time the fire started, and that no injuries have been reported.
Heavy smoke and flames could be seen emanating from the building, which houses businesses including Cinebar — its owners say it is San Jose’s oldest bar, dating to the late 1920s — the bar Los San Patricios, Chacho’s eatery and Social Lady, a restaurant/bar/nightclub.
Blaze in downtown San Jose on East San Fernando
Several buildings damaged including Cinebar pic.twitter.com/hxCRo1LV8G
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Ahmad Mumtaz lives in a high rise across the street from the building and realized how quickly and intensely the fire grew.
“You can actually feel the heat up on the 21st floor, that’s how much heat and how much fire there was,” he said, adding that he got text messages from his building to prepare for a potential evacuation.
SJFD spokesperson Erica Ray said firefighters were keep the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings, which was aided by the brick construction of the original structure. While the fire was declared under control by 2:15 p.m., Ray said the roof collapsed and covered parts of the building that were still burning, meaning firefighters were expected to stay on scene at least until Thursday evening.
Stacy Sutherland, co-owner of Cinebar — which has been closed since the coronavirus shut down California bars last March — raced to the scene as soon as she heard about the fire.
“It’s a nightmare. You put all your heart and soul into something,” she said, her voice trailing off. “We were closed but we were fighting so hard to be able to continue after this pandemic let up and now, I don’t know where we are going to go from here.”
Sutherland said she was hoping the damage to Cinebar would be limited to water damage, but she said the extent of destruction wouldn’t be known until firefighters get inside.
A cause for the fire remains the subject of an investigation, but Ray said there was no immediate evidence of a suspicious origin. But the roof collapse and other fire damage, she said, exacted a severe toll.
“It’s a devastating loss,” Ray said. “The building is uninhabitable.”
The blaze hit a block whose businesses were already struggling to survive. According to a recent survey by the San Jose Downtown Association, four in 10 downtown merchants who replied said they might be just a few months away from closing their doors for good.
Jorge Sanchez, the owner of Chacho’s, had permanently closed his restaurant in December, citing the huge losses caused by the coronavirus economy. “It hurts. It’s very disappointing that local, state, and federal (officials) don’t understand our hurt,” Sanchez told NBC Bay Area at the time.
The Mexican restaurant had been in business 27 years, since 1994, at various South Bay locations, including this spot since 2012.
Last fall, patrons of the historic Cinebar had started raising money via a GoFundMe campaign, with $12,500 of the $75,000 goal met.
“I’ll guess we’ll have to update that GoFundMe now,” Sutherland said.