Sunday, July 12, 2009

Safeway Warehouse Fire, 1988

One evening in September of 1988, I was driving home when I spotted an eruption of fire in the distance ahead. At first I thought it must be rather close, possibly down town Berkeley. But soon I realized was not close at all and actually a very large fire.

Rather than head home I kept driving, curious to see how close I could get to the site of the fire. When I reached Richmond it was apparent that this was a major blaze and seemed to be consuming a sizable piece of real estate.

As I got closer the entire freeway was suddenly shrouded in thick black smoke and flaming debris rained down on the car and across all lanes. By the time I made it through the smoke I had actually passed the site of the fire. I quickly exited the freeway, crossed an overpass and got back on the freeway heading back toward the fire. I again passed through the dense smoke and managed to find an exit close to the site of the fire.

I pulled up along a narrow paved road that ran behind the huge warehouse that was burning. I grabbed my cameras and crossed a ditch making my way to what appeared to be the back gate of the warehouse complex. Emergency vehicles were just pulling up and I realized that I was the first photographer on the scene.

I started shooting pictures and the firefighters raised an aerial and began pouring water on the primary source of the blaze. The fire started spreading fast and soon things began to explode sending balls of flame high into the air. I ripped through a couple rolls of film before the first video news crew arrived. After they set up their gear each time I raised my camera they would turn off their lights.

I managed to work with the dramatic light from the intense flames and find positions that gave me relatively clear views of the firefighters and the major hot spots. After about an hour or so I packed up and made it home where I worked into the early hours of the next morning developing my film and making prints.

You can see a selection of the images I made that night here on Flickr.

Photo: ©1988 David W. Sumner

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