Investigators say Berkeley building fire started in basement elevator room

Derek Remsburg/Staff
The building on the corner of Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue is being partially demolished.

The Nov. 18 fire that destroyed a Haste Street apartment building most likely started in the elevator machine room in the basement of the building.

According to an update from 3 p.m. Wednesday on the city of Berkeley’s website, Berkeley Fire Department investigators are concluding their investigation of the fire at 2441 Haste St., which they said appeared to be accidental in nature and originated in and around the elevator machinery. City spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said Thursday that the cause of the fire was a mechanical problem, not an electrical one.

The on site investigation phase of the 39-unit, four-story apartment building destroyed by the fire is complete, and a final report will be finished and publicly available in the next few weeks, according to the update.

If the fire department’s report concludes that the fire was caused by negligence in maintaining the building, the owners could possibly have to pay for all of the tenants’ damages, according to Marc Janowitz, an attorney for the East Bay Community Law Center. Janowitz added that if the landlords knew about tenant complaints concerning defective conditions and chose not to address these complaints, they would be subject to punitive fines.

The fire raged for six hours until it was contained and left little of the Sequoia apartments, which spanned the upper four stories of the five story building at the corner of Haste and Telegraph Avenue. In addition to the 68 tenants it displaced, the fire also severely damaged Cafe Intermezzo and Raleigh’s Bar & Grill which were on the ground level of the building. The partial demolition of the building began Tuesday.

The partial demolition was deemed necessary not only because the building was structurally unsound, but also so the fire marshal could conduct onsite investigations, according to Gil Dong, deputy fire chief for the Berkeley Fire Department.

The permit for the partial demolition allowed for removing the interior of the building as well as the walls on the north and west sides, according to Clunies-Ross. It also gave permission to cut down the hall on Haste and Telegraph to 29 and a half feet, she said. She added that a part of the wall on Haste collapsed by itself during the demolition.

The demolition permit could be altered if contractors on the ground deem it necessary.

“The contractor would meet with our permit staff and then they would revisit what work needed to be done and how they’re approaching that sort of thing,” Clunies-Ross said. “They discuss with the city staff the situation on the ground and we work with them on the appropriate permit.”

Clunies-Ross said amendments to permits are not unusual, adding that it was difficult to initially assess what the permit needed because of extensive fire damage.