Two people were rescued by police from the fire that erupted under the I-80 University Avenue overpass Wednesday. Photo: Mollie Hart

Berkeley Police officers rescued two people from the fire that erupted under the University Avenue Interstate 80 overpass Wednesday. The quick actions of three officers who were first on the scene may have saved the lives of two men trapped in the burning storage enclosure, according to the Berkeley Police Association.

At around 2:45 p.m. Wednesday, Berkeley Police Lt. Andrew Rateaver “noticed the fire” and called for emergency back-up, the association reported. His calls for help were immediately answered by two Berkeley Police Special Victims Unit detectives who were conducting an interview nearby.

They went to the scene of the fire that was raging in a Caltrans storage area containing around 100 Ecology Center recycling cans leased by the city of Berkeley, according to authorities.

“I could hear a man screaming and he was locked inside a chain link fence where the fire was roaring out of control,” said Detective Melissa Kelly, one of the officers who hurried to the scene, assisted by Detective Ana Baber. “We couldn’t get the gate open and had to reach under the fence to rescue the man and get him away from the burning fire.”

The fire burned up to 100 recycling cans that were kept under the overpass in a Caltrans storage area. Photo: Mary Flaherty

The first man who was rescued was disabled, missing a leg, and would have been unable to escape the fire on his own, the association said in a statement released Friday.

As the flames rose 12 feet in the air, the three officers could vaguely make out the silhouette of another person who was trapped in the locked enclosure under the overpass. With the help of a nearby good Samaritan who had stopped to help, the officers pulled a second man to safety through a gap in the fence, quickly removing him from the area of the fire, according to the statement.

“The fire was so aggressive and it all happened so fast — I have no doubt, that without our swift action, this situation could have easily ended in tragedy for the trapped men,” said Kelly.

“They didn’t hesitate to take action,” said association president Sgt. Chris Stines, of how the officers responded to the incident. They were not wearing protective clothing but went straight in, Stines said. “It’s a really good example of the type of things Berkeley police officers do every day. I can’t tell you how many times I hear of cases like this.”

According to Kelly, the rescued disabled man was later able to recover his wheelchair, which survived the fire.

The Berkeley Fire Department put out the fire within 18 minutes, according to Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong.

Fire investigators have not yet concluded what caused the fire, which created a significant cloud of billowing black smoke that was visible for miles.

There were reports of an explosion preceding the blaze, though that has not been confirmed, according to Dong. He said a ruptured fire extinguisher was found in the debris of the blaze, however.

Several local newspapers and television stations reported that the fire might have been caused by an explosion at a methamphetamine lab on the site. There is no evidence of this, according to Dong, who said the rumor may have been started by other media outlets that were scanning emergency radio traffic.

The Fire Department estimates the fire caused $10,000 worth of damage, with the replacement cost of a single recycling cart at about $100.

Related:
Possible explosion causes fire at I-80 University overpasss in West Berkeley (05.07.14)
Caltrans fence forces homeless to find new places to sleep (04.10.14)
Berkeley businesses, including Wooden Duck, Joshua Tree, damaged in huge fire (04.12.14)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...