Teachers respond to fire in S.F.’s Western Addition

Rosa Parks Elementary School staff responded to an apartment complex near the school in San Francisco’s Western Addition that was ablaze May 13. photo by Bennett Honson

Cecily Ina-Lee stood in the recess yard at Rosa Parks Elementary School in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood May 13 when a colleague told her smoke was rising from an apartment complex behind the school. The Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program teacher quickly dialed 911.

Ina-Lee ran toward the building, located at 10 Inca Lane, “to get more information” about where to “send the firefighters,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview. As she was giving instructions to 911, she also told people to evacuate the building.

However, some residents, including an older Asian couple, were stuck on the second floor of the apartment complex, unable to escape until firefighters rescued them, she said.

GOOD SAMARITANS ­— (Fom L to R): Rosa Parks Elementary School staff Ruben Guzman (sitting down), Vincent Reyes, Remi Nakamoto, Cecily Ina-Lee and Zachary Marlin responded to an apartment complex near the school  in San Francisco’s Western Addition that was ablaze May 13. courtesy of Rosa Parks Elementary School

According to Ina-Lee, Vincent Reyes, a first grade science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics (STEAM) teacher, ran into the building to try to save the apartment’s residents. He suffered some smoke inhalation and his eyes were “irritated,” she said. Ina-Lee said her throat hurt the rest of the day, but by the following day, the pain dissipated.

As Reyes and Ina-Lee were walking back to the school, Ina-Lee was “on the verge of tears” after seeing those who were initially unable to evacuate. She was frightened and said it was “something (she) had never seen before.”

From her classroom window, fellow JBBP teacher Remi Nakamoto saw “flames coming through the top of the roof,” she said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. She recorded the scene with her cell phone before seeing and going to help her colleagues, Ina-Lee and Reyes.

“My initial reaction when I was arriving, was to get everyone out of the building,” Nakamoto said. She knocked on all the windows and screamed, “Fire!”

All three teachers said they would not have done anything differently. Nakamoto added, “as teachers, our first instinct is to protect our kids and after knowing they were OK, help any way that we could.”

Reflecting on the incident, Ina-Lee was upset at bystanders who took photos and videos, but failed to help evacuate people from the building. However, she commended other community members for helping evacuate people from the building and the “selflessness” of her colleagues and the apartment residents for banging on doors to evacuate people.

“We teach our kids whenever there’s a fire drill or anything like that, you leave your possessions behind, it’s more about the person, saving the life,” Ina-Lee said.As of May 23, “the fire remains under investigation by the Fire Investigation Task Force,” which includes the San Francisco Police Department, the San Francisco Fire Department wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The SFPD said the fire injured seven people and five were taken to hospitals. Their injuries “bare consistent to smoke and heat exposure,” the SFFD wrote.

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