The cause of the fire that consumed six apartments on Central Avenue on Wednesday night remains unclear, and explanations of the events that led up to the massive explosion vary greatly.
What is known is that the fire at Sycamore Apartments was set off by an explosion in the apartment of a man who is being treated at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center for third-degree burns to his hand and first-degree burns to his neck.
The man told authorities that when he turned on a light at about 9:15 p.m., a spark inside the switch caused his gas-filled apartment to explode.
Why the room was filled with gas is unclear.
Tracy spokesman Matt Robinson said investigators are trying to determine if the man tried to commit suicide, a suggestion that a few residents questioned.
His neighbors said the unnamed man, possibly in his 50s, was the father of two boys who were away from the apartment when it blew up.
They described him as nice, “immaculately tidy” and “a devout Christian.”
Some residents said they thought the fire was caused by an ongoing gas leak that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. failed to identify.
The fire killed a resident's dog, and a woman was taken to Sutter Tracy Community Hospital for smoke inhalation and was later released.
Flames destroyed at least six apartments in the 16-unit cluster and damaged 10 others. The manager and the local chapter of the American Red Cross relocated all 30 residents of the building to vacant units in the same 324-unit complex. The Red Cross is providing pocket money and care to some of the fire’s worst victims.
The company that manages the building, Davidon Homes, would not discuss its insurance policies, and it’s unclear whether any residents will receive any compensation for their losses.
“The building manager told my mom it’s a complete loss," George Sanchez said.
"Nothing will be covered by the insurance company. We talked to most of the people who lived there, and nobody had insurance.”
Sanchez said his mother, Beatrice, lost an $8,000 furniture set, a new laptop and all her family photos in the fire.
Inside the apartment where the fire began, the explosion was so fierce that it ripped off the roof, severed the balcony railing, spewed glass 70 feet across the street and hurled melted shutters into the trees where they still hung Thursday like giant linguini.
People as far as 2½ miles away reported hearing the boom.
The fight against the flames was delayed when the roof collapsed on six firefighters who had entered the upstairs apartment, knocking them flat.
“Luckily, they were able to climb out unhurt,” Robinson said.
The fact that the man inside the apartment was not more severely hurt by the deafening explosion is “borderline divine intervention,” Robinson said.
“He was on the second floor and was blown out of the apartment and onto the balcony by the strength of the blast. Some hero pulled him down,” Robinson said.
One of those was Mike Hink, who lives on Silkwood Lane, just around the corner from the now-blackened complex.
Hink was watching TV with his family when he heard a loud boom.
“Car alarms went off; it was scary. I thought a car had run into the garage,” he said.
Hink ran down the street shoeless, arriving at the scene even before the fire department. Accompanied by another man Hink believes was an off-duty police officer, he charged into the building and started knocking on doors, telling people to get out.
Hink rushed up the stairs to the upper floor said he could see the man whose apartment had exploded, standing on his balcony amidst the flames.
“He looked dazed. We were yelling that he had to get out of there, but he didn’t react,” he said. “Later, we figured out that he probably couldn’t hear us because of the explosion.”
Hink ran down to the first story, stood on a wall below, and coaxed the disoriented man to the edge of the balcony, grabbed his ankles and tugged until he fell and crumpled into the garden.
The two then dragged the man to the sidewalk, where his melted nylon jacket remained Thursday.
“The heart was pumping. We did it fast, and next thing you know it was over,” Hink said.
“He never said a word.”
PG&E received two calls the night of the fire from residents of the complex, one at 6 p.m. and the other at 7 p.m. Residents said the calls were placed by two different neighbors, both of whom told the company they smelled gas.
But after investigating the calls, inspectors found no leak and left, said PG&E spokeswoman Nicole Tam.
“They didn’t smell gas and found no leak,” Tam said.
But Tracy Kinney, who lives in the apartment cluster next to the building that caught fire, suggested that the inspectors’ equipment might have been faulty.
Kinney said she already smelled gas on her way to work at about 7 a.m. on the day of the fire.
At around 8:00 p.m., on her way home from work, Kinney said she bumped into one of the PG&E inspectors, who was by then already on his second trip to the complex.
“The smell was stronger than in the morning and I said, ‘So somebody reported a gas smell’ He said, ‘I don’t smell a gas smell.’”
“So I said, ‘My throat hurts and my eyes burn, and you’re telling me you don’t smell gas’”
Kinney said the man said that his sensor showed no gas leak.
“He told me, ‘It’s not gas. It will dissipate. It’s probably coming from over there,’ and then he pointed to that field,” she said.
PG&E’s Tam said inspectors used a device that detects both natural gas and propane but found neither at the apartment complex. She said inspectors also checked the PG&E meter to see if the gas flow to the building was normal, which it was.
But a little more than an hour after the inspector left, while Kinney was lying in bed with her kids, she heard the giant “Baa-Boom!”
PG&E’s story differs from those of Sycamore Apartment residents in other ways.
Tam said that the company had received no other calls about gas leaks at the complex the past two months, but various residents contradicted that claim.
Tina Baker, a resident who lost her Chihuahua puppy in the fire, as well as thousands of dollars of prescription medicine, said one of her neighbors told her a gas leak was reported to PG&E three weeks prior to the fire.
“We’ve had leaks before. A few weeks ago, neighbors said they smelled it (gas) pretty bad and PG&E came to fix it,” she said.
Baker, who is unemployed and moved to Tracy just a month and a half ago, said the fire has left her with nothing.
“People said they made three or four different calls (to PG&E) over the last few days,” said Sanchez, whose mother, Beatrice, lost her home. “A guy came out and said everything was fine.
“I think a gas leak caused the blast.”
Eric Wheeler, 16, who lives nearby, heard the blast and ran out to see the fire.
“PG&E should have known what was going on,” he said
But the company’s spokeswoman said the inspectors did their job, and Robinson said, “PG&E did all they could.”
Kinney said that the morning after the blast, on the side of the burned building, PG&E crews dug up the sidewalk to access the main gas lines — news that surprised Robinson. The hole in the sidewalk is now covered up by a board.
Residents also spoke favorably of the man whose apartment exploded.
“He’s a great guy, immaculate. He bought us shrimp one time.” Kinney said, adding that he was liked by other neighbors who knew him as “a very good Christian man.”
“His name is Don. He’s about 52,” Kinney said.
To contact reporter Niko Kyriakou, call 830-4274, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.