Tonight, since it was Dining Out For Life night here in San Francisco, I met my partner down in the Castro proper at Starbears (which, for those of you not familiar with our furry subculture, is the correct name for the Starbucks located on 18th Street at Castro), planning to go grab a bite to eat at one of the participating restaurant.
My husbear is an inveterate conversationalist, especially with other cute bears, and I was more than a bit impatient to get going, certain we were not going to get a table. Finally, he wrapped up, and we headed back up 18th to the Castro intersection. While we were waiting for the crosswalk signal, I turned to speak to one of our friends who had accompanied us to the corner.
Suddenly, from up Castro towards Market -- behind me -- I heard a noise -- squealing of brakes, the slamming of metal. I distinctly remember thinking, "Great, another grocery truck. Why do they always sound like they're falling apart?"
Then the loud BOOM of an explosion echoed down the street.
I spun instantly and saw the unthinkable; a car, facing us, going the wrong way on Castro, smashed hood and headlights...and off to one side raging angrily, an orange glow that immediately sent fear stabbing through my back at a remembered memory.....gasoline fire.
"Come on, get across," I said, grabbing my partner's arm as he stared at the fire, virtually pulling him across Castro, instincts driving me to move, get the hell away. In what seemed like an instant, we were across; I turned to look back -- and saw a long tongue of fire pouring down Castro, racing under the cars parked along the curb, their tires starting to smoke, running towards the corner on which, seconds ago, we had been standing
Fear gripped me. I expected a hail of exploding metal any second.
"Get moving! We've got to get AWAY from this!" Slowly I herded them up 18th, the crowds slowly backing away from the blazing inferno. Sirens wailed; the buzz of a news helicopter who happened to be in the right place at the right time echoed off the buildings as we ducked through the Walgreens's back parking lot and up Collingwood. The fire engines were racing down Market as we re-crossed Castro, and they were more than needed -- the smoke was thickly billowing over the front of businesses, the single engine that had instantly responded from the nearby house valiantly pumping foam onto the licking flames.
Later, after a nervous dinner at Blue, we walked back towards the Castro, not sure what we were going to see, worried about our friends, and fearing the worst.
At the corner, we met one of our acquaintances comforting another man, who gave us more details. As it turns out, the car facing the wrong way had turned left from Market onto Castro, running the red light, careened out of control, and struck a row of motorcycles. That had triggered the fire; the gas torn out of the bikes kept it going. His bike had been completely destroyed; others were badly damaged. One person who had been sitting in a parked car and was struck was confirmed dead; the driver of the wrecked car was badly injured. Fortunately, most people who had been on the sidewalk were able to get inside, into one of the near storefronts....it could have been a lot worse.
Crowds were gathered along the police tape as we crossed over to the west side of Castro, looking almost in disbelief at the damage. A row of cars were parked askew along the curb, hoods torn open, some with crumpled bodies, blackened with smoke and soot. Fuzio's looked OK, All-American Boy wasn't showing much damage, but the famous red awning above Clift's Variety Store, a Castro icon, was melted and falling, and the paint on the building was yellowed with the heat and fumes. Next to it, the white lettering on A Different Light's black awning was grayish and coated with charred particles.
As we stood there staring, my partner said very quietly, "Do you realize that we were just seconds away from walking right into the middle of that?"
We, and likely a few hundred others.
With the density of the Castro's population, plus the fact that it was a nice evening with several people out for the Dining Out for Life event, someone or something was definitely looking out for the homosexuals tonight. My sympathies and prayers are with the victims and their families.
A video of the fire and aftermath is on the Channel 5 site; the San Francisco Chronicle site has more details. I'll let you know more as information is made public.