Santa Clara: Luxury units under construction ruined in blaze, person of interest released

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Fire officials in Santa Clara say it could be tomorrow before they’re able to dig through the ruins of a four-story townhome construction site and search for the cause of a fire.

The four-alarm blaze broke out around 11 a.m., torching the 56-condominium units that were being built at 1890 El Camino Real. The flames also threatened homes in a nearby subdivision.

As dusk turned to darkness, residents struggled with a vexing question: Stay or go.

Skyfox: Luxury housing under construction burns 

“It’s not ideal. But we’re sort of uh, bound. Got our dog recovering from surgery so it makes it tough going other places,” said Ben Pearl as he stood on his front lawn.

Ben Pearl has a recovering pooch inside, his wife and child outside. And smoke and ash still drifting from the fire scene that’s nestled against his backyard. His neighborhood and neighbors -- also without electric service, and everyone could be dark into Saturday.

“We prefer to stay actually at this point. Well [because] we live here,” said resident Gary Reinart.

Late Friday morning, a massive fire at the Anantara Villas Townhome construction site on El Camino Real threatened the homes in this neighborhood.

“Fire started in this corner over here and spread. So the fire was in a frame building which causes rapid flames to spread,” said Santa Clara Fire Dept. Chief Bill Kelly.

Witnesses say in the blink of an eye, a small fire grew into a goliath. The Fox 2 News helicopter, “SkyFox,” circled overhead, as smoke and flames billowed into the air from the four-alarm fire that devoured the development that was only one-quarter completed.

“I just seen like the workers running. Like nervous and scared. And when I looked outside it was a little, little fire. And then the whole building went up in flames,” said Maricela Cruz, an employee at a nearby Popeye’s Fried Chicken restaurant, who saw the fire in its early stages.

Firefighters from Santa Clara and San Jose formed a defensive line along El Camino between Scott Boulevard and Lincoln Street, to prevent embers from spreading flames to other structures. One worker sprained an ankle jumping from scaffolding to safety. Neighbors ran door-to-door warning each other – some even grabbed garden hoses in an attempt to save their houses.

“The thing I can do is just get my big long hose and spray their roof a little bit, just in case you know,” said neighbor Mostafa Masri. Added Erica Pearl, as she held her 17-month-old son to her hip, “You don’t think it’s real when someone says there’s a fire behind your house. But it was hotter every single second. We had no time to grab. It was the dog, shoes, wallet and go.”

The Anantara Villas was a development of luxury townhomes. The 56 units were priced from the high six-figures to over a million dollars. Construction was 25 percent complete, according to the fire department.  

Mayor Lisa Gillmor, (D) Santa Clara, says while she’s thankful there were no deaths and only one minor injury, the loss of what would have been new housing is felt across the South Bay.

“When I saw the big plume of black smoke in the air, my heart fell into my stomach,” said Gillmor.

The property developer, Legend USA, released a statement which reads in part, “We will work with local authorities and related companies to conduct a thorough review of what happened…”

Back in the neighborhood, the weekend starts with a visit from unwanted guests. Smoke and ash and darkness due to lack of electric service and lingering questions. 

“We’ll kind of see how it goes. Keep the windows closed for now. And if it kind of calms down, then we’ll probably open them up,” said Ben Pearl.

El Camino Real between Scott and Lincoln has been closed since the fire started. There are plans to eventually open the westbound lanes, but the eastbound will remain closed as fire equipment will be on-scene all night long.

Santa Clara police officials say that a man held for several hours of questioning in connection with the fire was released Friday afternoon. He has not been charged in this case, and the cause of the blaze is not known.

Anyone with information is asked to call Detective James Wright at (408) 615-4829. 

Bay City News contributed to this report.