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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Yesterday's Crimes: The Great Folsom Street Fire

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2016 at 12:01 PM

RAY HEINITZ/FLICKR
  • Ray Heinitz/Flickr
The Barracks at 1147 Folsom St. between Seventh and Eighth streets was a two-story BDSM wonderland with theme rooms that catered to every fetish imaginable. After opening in 1971, the bathhouse quickly established itself as one of the biggest and best known clubs on Folsom's "Miracle Mile," a stretch of nearly 30 different leather bars and clubs in South of Market.

The club closed down in 1976, and was being redeveloped into a hotel in 1981 until somebody lit a match and the whole thing went up in flames.

The Barracks fire started around 2 a.m. on Friday, July 11, 1981. The flames quickly spread through the warehouses and flats that crowded Hallam Street and Brush Place, a pair of dead-end alleyways that fed into Folsom.

Jonathan Gilcrest, a motel clerk saw the burgeoning blaze while he was walking down Folsom. He charged onto Hallam and yelled for people to get out of their homes.

"Fire started coming out of the windows," Gilcrist told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The next thing you know, a vacant hotel across the alley was on fire. Then everything was on fire."

A group of elderly retirees who lived in the area because of its cheap rents fled from their flats only to find themselves trapped between pillars of flame and the concrete wall of a warehouse.

Bill Livingston, who lived in a former furniture factory at the end of Brush Place, rushed downstairs to open his large, steel garage door so people could escape through his live-work space.

"They were very disoriented," Livingston said. "The heat and smoke were tremendous."

Dean Chambers, a 29-year-old waiter, watched the fire from his flat on Langton Street, just doors away from the blaze.

"It was like 'Gone With the Wind,'" he said. "Flames were shooting from buildings just yards away."

Fire crews had to dodge flaming debris from the collapse of the Barracks just after they arrived on the scene at 2:15 a.m. Fire Chief Andrew Casper deemed that this was "more than a fire."

"It was a conflagration," he told reporters.

Residents told the first-responders that some people may have been chained up in S&M slave quarters that dotted the neighborhood, and couldn't escape. Firefighters told the Associated Press that they found "a bed with hooks, chains and manacles at the back of one building."

click image CRAWFORD BARTON/GAY AND LESBIAN HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Crawford Barton/Gay and Lesbian Historical Society
"Homosexuals dressed in leather and chains were among those who watched thick smoke from the blaze darken the sky," according to the AP.

Chief Casper also believed that the fire could have been fueled by large quantities of butyl nitrate — the popular party drug known as "poppers," also known as "Rush" — that may have been stored there.

One of the apartments destroyed by the fire was owned by the company that produced the chemical "particularly popular among gay men" to "produce an intense orgasm," according to "health officials" quoted by the Chron.

This was the third fire to consume buildings owned by the manufacturer of Rush in two years.

Photographs of the inferno's aftermath look like something from the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II, but, surprisingly, nobody died in what was dubbed the costliest fire since the 1906 earthquake. Five firefighters were injured in the blaze that damaged or destroyed 27 buildings, and left 119 people homeless.

In the end, no evidence of Rush was found in the charred wreckage, but the fire still looked very suspicious. A day after the disaster, police arrested Otis J. Bloom, a disgruntled housepainter from Millbrae, on suspicion of arson.

Bloom was upset after losing some tools near the Barracks, and told a construction worker in the area that "this place is just going to burn to the ground."

According to a confession later played in court, Bloom left a nearby bar called The Stable to stuff a stack of newspapers in the door of the defunct bathhouse. He then returned to finish his beer, and lit the fire sometime after last call.

"I don't really know if I did it intentionally or what," he confessed. "There is a lot of things I've done but that I never knew or realized I had done."

Bloom was sentenced to seven years in prison in May 1982. He died on March 19, 2015.

The Bloodhound (a faux dive bar popular with the tech crowd) and an America's Best Value Inn occupy the space where the Barracks once raged.
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Bob Calhoun

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