A man who was allegedly robbed by a pack of thieves as he slept on the streets of San Francisco attempted to seek retribution by setting a hotel and another building on fire Wednesday morning in the Tenderloin, according to a witness at the scene.
Capt. Jonathan Baxter, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Fire Department, confirmed a heavy firefighter presence was sent at 6:10 a.m. to the area of Larch and Eddy streets to deal with two reported fires, including one at Hotel Le Nain.
Both incidents are under investigation, Baxter said, adding that the department has not classified the fires as arson. Police said no arrests have been made.
Amanda Jones told The Standard she called authorities after watching the events unfold as she sat in her car near her job at Hotel Le Nain.
Around 6 a.m., she said, people began rummaging through an unhoused man’s pockets as he slept. By the time he woke up, the thieves had already crossed the street.
“He started cussing, so I got out of the car and then he accused me of taking his stuff,” Jones said. “I told him I didn’t take any of his things, and that he should talk with those people across the street.”
The man proceeded to take out a lighter and set the hotel on fire while attempting to fuel the blaze with a cardboard box.
“I started recording him and told him that I was calling the police, but he kept insisting that I give him back his stuff,” Jones said, adding that she kicked over the cardboard box that was on fire.
The man fled the scene, Jones said, and firefighters were called to the hotel to put out the blaze. But then the smell of smoke lingered down the street from an alley on Larch Street.
“When I looked up the street, I said, ‘I know this idiot did not just do this again!’ And I took off running and saw a fire on the other side of a parking garage,” Jones said. “I showed the recording to a lady who was sleeping in a tent there, and she said it was him.”
Jones said she gave police video footage and pictures she took during the incident.
She described the area around the hotel as usually filled with unhoused people who light fires to keep themselves warm, but this particular incident seemed to be an intentional act to cause destruction.
“All day when I’m at work, I constantly have to tell folks to move because they are either smoking drugs or in the way of people leaving the hotel,” Jones said. “He did this on purpose because he was mad that someone had taken his stuff.”
Although responding to emergencies is part of the fire department’s daily public service, Baxter said, incidents like Wednesday morning’s fire take away resources from other emergencies.
“Of course, there is the cost factor of the on-duty crews,” Baxter said, “[But] the true measure of incidents like this is making us not available for a home fire, medical emergency or disaster.”
Joel Umanzor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org