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4-Alarm Fire Erupts In North Beach; 'It Was Raining Burnt Ashes'

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A massive 4-alarm fire erupted in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood Saturday night sending residents, restaurant customers and St. Patrick's Day revelers into to street to watch the firefight.

The San Francisco Fire Department said at 9:30 p.m. that they had contained the 4-alarm blaze. There have not been any injuries reported in the blaze. Fortunately, the apartments on second and third floors were vacant.

Officials said the fire was quickly elevated to a second alarm in 659 Union Street at about 7:37 p.m. Shortly after 8 p.m, the third and fourth alarm were reported.

Black smoke and flames were billowing into the air soon after the fire began and the fire department asked people to avoid the area.

San Francisco Fire Department Lt. Jonathan Baxter firefighters arrived to the scene 2 minutes after they were dispatched, attacking the blaze from inside the building within 6 minutes. The fire was at two alarms just after 7:30 p.m., but it quickly grew to a 4-alarm blaze.

Once the firefighters determined there was no one inside the building, Baxter said they switched to a "defensive operation" to extinguish the flames by pouring water on it from outside the building.

The building that went up in flames had businesses in the lower level and 27 vacant residential units in the upper levels, according to Baxter. Fire officials are working with San Francisco police to determine the cause and the origin of the fire.

Baxter said 140 firefighters were on scene to combat the blaze.

Rania Nour, who has a home in San Francisco, was eating dinner at Il Pollaio, a restaurant on 555 Columbus Avenue that shares a block with 659 Union Street.

Nour said the smell of smoke started permeating the restaurant, but most patrons thought it was the smell of cooking grilled chicken.

When she stepped out, she saw smoke and soon flames rising into the sky. She walked by bars blaring with music and packed with St. Patrick's Day revelers, unaware of the fire, right before police began evacuating the area.

"It was raining burnt ashes," Nour said. "It happened so fast."

The bottom level of the building housed Coit Liquors and the Rogue Ales Public House.

Oakland's Juan Alatorre of Oakland and his girlfriend, Greta Gonzalez, were in the bar. They told the San Francisco Chronicle that a bartender suddenly jumped on a table and yelled for everyone to get out.

"The flames were coming up 20 feet in the air when we left," Alatorre told the paper. "It was like the fire just erupted."

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