Cause of Milias Apartments fire undetermined for now

Las Animas Fire Captain Chris Weber looks for the source of the

The cause of a Tuesday evening fire that scorched a one-bedroom
residence at the historic Milias Apartments building and sent an
83-year-old man to the hospital has not been determined, a city
fire investigator said Thursday.
The cause of a Tuesday evening fire that scorched a one-bedroom residence at the historic Milias Apartments building and sent an 83-year-old man to the hospital has not been determined, a city fire investigator said Thursday.

Crews from the Gilroy Fire Department, CalFire and Rural/Metro ambulance service responded to the blaze, located in a single-bedroom apartment on the alley side of the three-story building, which sits at the corner of Sixth Street and Monterey Road downtown and is adjacent the newly renovated Milias Restaurant.

Apartment residents were asked to evacuate, but restaurant patrons were allowed to stay because the restaurant portion of the structure has a fire-sprinkler system, according to Gilroy Fire Capt. Joshua Valverde. The apartments are not legally required to have sprinklers because of the age of the building, Valverde said.

The building was built in 1922 and contains 47 studio apartments, according to the Milias Apartments website.

Andy Holiday, a city fire engineer and investigator, said the cause of the blaze would be undetermined “for a while.” He said Thursday he had not yet looked at the report compiled from the Tuesday fire.

A phone call and e-mail to City Fire Marshal Jackie Bretschneider were not returned as of press time.

A man, identified as 83-year-old Ruben Leon by a friend and neighbor Wilford Tovar, was reportedly carried by Gilroy firefighter Kris Teresi down a short flight of stairs to the alley behind the building and transported to Saint Louise Regional Hospital. Leon agreed to a hospital trip after first refusing emergency workers’ requests for roughly an hour.

Parts of Leon’s face and tongue were blackened from soot, and firefighters said he seemed disoriented and confused.

Gilroy firefighter Heinz Maibaum said the fire likely started in the man’s bed, which along with his nearby chair and television set were blackened and warped from flames and heavy smoke. He said similar fires were often caused by either cigarettes or electrical problems, but Maibaum didn’t want to speculate further.

Firefighters were called to the blaze around 5:30 p.m., and the fire was extinguished around 6 p.m.

Maibaum said a man returning home from work noticed the smoke and dialed 911. Firefighters found Leon’s apartment door open and could hear him mumbling and moaning through the smoke, Maibaum said.

“This whole room was full of smoke,” Maibaum said, standing in the middle of the blackened living space.

Firefighters broke the apartment’s windows to ventilate and help cool the apartment, and Teresi carried Leon outside.

“Luckily he wasn’t fighting us,” Teresi said.

Teresi later added Leon was confused, saying, “I got it, I got it,” when he tried to help the man down the stairs.

Dozens of onlookers spilled onto Sixth Street and Monterey Road to watch the scene, and a portion of Sixth Street was blocked to traffic. No other injuries were reported.

Adam Sanchez, co-owner of the Milias Restaurant, said his staff and customers handled the situation “remarkably well.”

“At first I thought it was our food, but I said, ‘It doesn’t smell like someone’s burning something in our kitchen,” Sanchez said.

Fearing the smoky smell was the result of an electrical issue, Sanchez began unplugging every plugged-in device in site – a soda machine, a coffee pot and a soup service station, among others.

By the time he finished unplugging, there were two fire engines parked in the alley behind the building, he said.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh man, this is not good for business,” Sanchez said.

Surprisingly, even with Sixth Street closed between Monterey Road and Eigleberry Street, Sanchez said the restaurant had close to a full house.

“That same day, the soup of the day was Smoked Tomato Bisque,” he said. “It was just a coincidence.”

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