Look out, it's the SFFD!

I rolled out of bed one recent Thursday morning, flipped open my Chronicle and stared in horror. Right there, on the front page, was a photo of two fire engines smack in the front of Radio Valencia. I mean in there. The caption told me they were heading to a fire when they met, unexpectedly, at the corner of 23rd and Valencia and did the cha-cha-cha all the way into one of my fave coffeehouses. No!!! This is not going to be a good day, I quickly realized. Radio Val. Gone.

Sometimes the best way to deal with bad news is to get some answers. So I visit the neighborhood one recent Sunday afternoon to see what I can find out. I bicycle up to Radio Val and find it boarded up. A lot of posters already decorate the plywood, but I don't see any notices as to what's going on. I head over to Guerrero and pop into Cafe Que Tal at the corner of 22nd on the hopes that some Radio Val regulars are in there and know what's up with the old place. Not a lot of folks in there on this particular Sunday afternoon. The gal behind the counter remembers the incident vaguely. I ask her if she knows where the fire engines were coming from. "No...but I have a friend who's a fireman." I see. "Do you know where the nearest fire station is?" I inquire. "19th and Folsom," she tells me. I'm getting somewhere. I jump back on my bike and head in the other direction to Folsom Street.

Once I get to the fire station, the place looks empty. Fire stations always do. Fire engines, but no firefighters. I yell out "hellooooo." It echoes. An important-looking guy walks out. He has a white shirt on, not the usual dark blue. Turns out he's Bill Richardson, one of two division chiefs for the entire SFFD. And...he's in charge of filing all accident reports for the department. I've found the right guy. It just so happens he had filed the report on the Radio Val accident the day before.

We step into his office and get acquainted. I tell him about the time a fire engine rammed into my neighbor's BMW, which was illegally parked at a fire hydrant. Not on purpose, I'm sure. He doesn't laugh. He steps over to his file cabinet and pulls out the report on the Radio Valencia accident. I get a detailed account of what happened. Plus, I get to look at the diagrams recreating the accident. Here's the skinny: two separate calls came in for a fire on Treat Street, so two engines were dispatched from the station at 26th and Church. Engine 24 was heading down 23rd Street. Engine 11 was coming down Valencia. Apparently the folks in these engines wear headphones so they can get instructions from home base. Which means they can't exactly hear sirens in the area. Sounds like trouble. They meet at the corner of 23rd and Valencia, where Engine 11 hits Engine 24 and pushes him into Radio Valencia. All of the firefighters on both engines, eight in total, wound up in the hospital. No serious injuries, although one firefighter is still not back to work. The amazing news is that no one at the cafe got hurt. The accident took place around 5:30 in the afternoon and there were only a handful of people at Radio Val. Pure luck.

Chief Richardson offers to show me around the firehouse. Coffee snob that I am, I casually ask him what kind of coffee they drink there, figuring it's something along the lines of Yuban. "We get our coffee from Martha and Brothers," he tells me. Whoa, these guys drink the good stuff. "Every now and again, someone who doesn't know what they're doing goes to the store and gets Maxwell House." The chief sounds pissed. I walk into the kitchen and immediately smell something delicious. Chocolate. One of the firefighters is baking a cake. It so happens his family has owned the Dominguez Bakery in the Mission for many years. It's a chocolate cake, which will have a chocolate cream filling and chocolate frosting. I'm told he also makes an excellent carrot cake with lemon cream cheese frosting. They also have a sense of humor in this place. I think. I tell the firefighters I'm there to get some information on the Radio Valencia accident. "Oh yeah, at least there will be a lot of parking spaces out front from now on." "Guess they wanted a cup of coffee real bad and were fighting for the parking space out front." At least they know their coffee.

Radio Valencia will be back, probably in October or November. Owner Don Alan tells me that a lot of red tape is standing in the way of a quicker opening. Once these folks come back, be there. Great coffee and eats, cool atmosphere and some of the best tunes in town.

© 1997 Elaine Sosa

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