By location alone, a block from Fillmore Street as it passes through the upwardly challenged Hayes Valley, Alamo Square would not be among the sexier neighborhoods in San Francisco. But one of the most popular and recognizable posters of the City by the Bay captures a row of beautifully restored and vibrantly painted three- and four-story Victorians that face the park on Steiner Street-the so-called "Painted Ladies." The poster created a certain cachet for the area such that the cheapest of these houses now go for three-plus. Million.
The blaze at Paul Hanover's, in the middle of this block, began around 8:00 P.M. on May 12, although the first alarm wasn't called in until nearly 8:30. Fires love old Victorians. Even though Hanover's house had been stripped to the bare bones twenty years earlier-retrofitted for earthquakes and freshly insulated with fire-resistant material-it is the nature of Victorian design to have funky interior spaces, oddly-shaped rooms, crannies and closets and unusual passages. Within the walls, since heat wants to travel up, fires employ the vertical stud lines as flues, almost as chimneys, to transport themselves effortlessly and quickly up and up into the roof spaces, where billowing smoke is most often noticed first.
Even in a neighborhood of great sensitivity to the threat of fire-of old, very valuable wooden houses in wall-to-wall proximity-no one noticed anything amiss at Hanover's until the fire had progressed to the unfinished attic. The late-arriving fog camouflaged the first appearance of the smoke, and the wind blew it away. By the time one of the local residents realized that what he was actually seeing was not fog butthick clouds of smoke pouring out from under the eaves of his neighbor's roof, the fire was well advanced.
As soon as the first alarm's fire trucks arrived-three engines, two trucks, two battalion chiefs, an assistant chief and a rescue squad-the two-man aerial ladder team from the first engine began climbing to Hanover's roof, intending to ventilate it by cutting a hole into it with axes and chainsaws. Meanwhile, four men in Nomex turnout pants and coats and wearing Scott Air-Paks-the initial attack squad-got to the front door, found it unlocked and opened it right up. Although they were armed with Akron fog nozzles that could spray water over a wide angle and get them closer to the flames, in this case they were greeted by a roiling cloud of hot thick black smoke, impossible to see through. They could make no progress.
Al Daly, officer of the initial attack squad, spoke matter-of-factly into the headpiece of his walkie- talkie. "Front door is breached, Norm. We got a working fire here." Daly was speaking to his battalion chief, Norm Shaklee, out front in the street. The words conveyed great urgency. A working fire meant they would need at least one more alarm-four more engines, another truck, two more chiefs. In a house this size with so much exposure to the homes on either side, this working fire could go to five alarms, San Francisco's maximum.
All four stories of Hanover's home might already be-probably were-involved. Shaklee, in his white helmet, placed the next alarm call and looked up as the sound of chainsaws stopped. Over the roof, he saw a churning pillar of black smoke erupt into the sky, and spoke into his walkie-talkie. "They're through on the roof, Al. Back out a minute."
He was telling Daly that ventilation was about to start working, potentially a very dangerous moment. If the smoke inside the house was hot enough-and no one knew if it was-the addition of oxygen to it might at this time cause a tremendous and often lethal backdraft explosion. So the initial attack squad waited in a kind of suspension down the front steps out in the street until, a minute and forty seconds later, the smoke column spewing from the roof suddenly exploded into a fireball that lit the night for blocks around and rose to heights of a hundred feet and more.
By now, the first hoses had been attached to the hydrant at the corner, and eight firefighters on each of a couple of them were blasting six hundred gallons of water per minute into the open space. For all the apparent good the firefighters were doing, they might as well have been standing around spitting on the flames, but appearances in this case were deceiving. The hydrant water was lowering the temperature sufficiently so that Daly and his squad could advance again into the building.
Because of the ventilation, the smoke that filled the foyer had now begun to dissipate upward, as did the thick cloud of steam generated by the water from the hoses. Within a few seconds after the hose teams stopped soaking the entryway, Daly and his squad were back at the front door. With his night helmet's beam on and glowing, he had relatively clear sight lines through the foyer to the house beyond, to the flames still licking at the walls on all sides. Wielding his Akron, spraying in a wide arc, he advanced into the darkness, following the beam on his helmet. All around was noise and chaos-the rush of air behind him as the conflagration sucked it in, the roar of the actual fire, the creaking and splintering of wood, the hail of ax blows, disembodied voices yelling both within and outside the building.
Daly sprayed and advanced, sprayed and advanced. One foot or so at a time. The foyer was circular, high-ceilinged and quite large, perhaps fourteen feet in diameter. He could make out the shapes of burning furniture along the walls-what appeared to have been a coatrack, a sideboard, maybe an umbrella stand or wastebasket. Drapes over a pair of windows, curved to the shape of the house, were all but incinerated. One opening to Daly's right led into another open room, and directly ahead of him another doorway fed into a hall. Everywhere he looked there was flame-total involvement of the ground floor.
Despite the hose's soaking, the fire was growing again, heating up. It was excruciatingly hot, dangerously hot. Daly felt a sloshing like water in his ear, but knew that it wasn't water. It was his earwax, melting. He had to get out of here, right now. He wasn't going to be able to check for potential rescue victims until the fire died somewhat, and by then-by now, he knew-anything living in the structure would have died as well.
Still he pushed forward, forcing himself for another step or two, spraying as he went. It was full night, his only light his helmet beam. Looking down at the entrance to the hallway, he suddenly became aware of two shapes that stopped him where he stood. Leaning in for a closer look, not that he needed it, he forced himself to speak in his most neutral tone. "There's two bodies in here, Norm. In the foyer."
Out in the street, the second-alarm units had begun to arrive and Shaklee was issuing orders to nine people at once back by the rehab station, which itself was already nearly overwhelmed supplying drinks, fresh air bottles and first aid. He asked Daly to repeat what he'd just said, and he did, adding, "No ambulance needed." Which meant they were obviously dead.
Shaklee took only another second to process the information, then turned and spoke to his operator-aide, who functioned as gopher in the field. "Find Becker," he said, "and put in a call to homicide."
Arnie Becker, the forty-three-year-old lead arson investigator attached to the Bureau of Fire Investigation, arrived with the second-alarm unit. In situations like this, Becker's task was to determine the origin of the blaze. To do that, he'd have to enter the building and investigate all the indicators-"V" patterns on walls, decalcification of Sheetrock, "alligatoring" of studs, condition of electrical components and so on-and by doing so, hope to locate the spot where the fire began, and if possible determine what might have caused it.
Becker was a twenty-year veteran of the fire department. In San Francisco his whole working life, he was particularly familiar with Victorians, and he knew that this house, with all the places in which a fire could hide, would in all likelihood burn through the night and perhaps well into the next morning. He wasn't going to have an answer anytime soon.
But that didn't mean he didn't have a lot to do. A huge crowd of onlookers had coalesced on the block, and more were streaming out of houses both up and down the street and across the open space of Alamo Square behind them. This was his potential witness pool-people he and his team would need to talk to. Some percentage of them might live on the block, might have seen something suspicious.
He needed all the information he could find from a near-infinite universe of possibilities, the most tantalizing one being that if this fire was arson, if someone had started it, then that person was probably among the crowd, enjoying his handiwork, possibly even sitting in one of the cypress trees in Alamo Square getting sexual satisfaction from it. Becker had seen it before.
In San Francisco, police officers from the hit & run detail are assigned to fire investigation, so Becker had a staff of helpers and he sent them out to talk to everybody they could. They would not conduct formal interviews-not now, anyway-but he wanted names and phone numbers of everybody. If people didn't want to provide that, that could be instructive. If still others wouldn't shut up, that might tell him something as well. Becker didn't know anything, including what he didn't know. So this was his chance to start gathering information from whatever source presented itself, and he took it very seriously indeed. His men fanned out to either end of the crowd and were working it to the inside and from behind.
Becker himself was on his way to talk to the neighbor who'd called in the fire and who had waited around to help guide the trucks when they'd arrived, not that they had needed it by then. But suddenly Becker's partner in the Arson Unit, J. P. Dodd-twenty-eight years old, Army-trained, competent yet relaxed, appeared at his elbow. The night around them was a kaleidoscope of lights in the darkness-the yellow flickering fire, the red bubbles on the trucks, the white glare from the firemen's helmets, now the kleigs of the TV camera crews. Dodd's earnest face looked particularly grave. "They've found two bodies, Arn. Shaklee needs you to come on up."
The fire still raged in the back of the house and on the upper stories. The two manned fire hoses at the front door snaked across the floor of the foyer and disappeared out the right-hand doorway somewhere back into the inferno. Becker, now suited up in his turnout coat and night helmet, his Scotts down over his face, also held a wide-beam flashlight that he trained on the bodies. He squatted like a baseball catcher, having learned that to put a knee on the floor was an invitation to pain and suffering.
The clothing had been burned off where they had been exposed, but even though both figures were lying on their backs, he couldn't tell what sex either had been. One was larger, and one smaller, so they were possibly a man and a woman, but he wouldn't be sure until the coroner was finished with them. The hair and any distinguishing characteristics on the faces, likewise, were burned away.
Something in the resting attitudes struck him, though. He had seen many dead people before, the victims of fire, as well as victims of murder and/or suicide, who were at fire scenes but dead before they burned. In his experience, the bodies of people who died from fire or smoke inhalation as the blaze grew around them tended to curl protectively into a fetal position. Victims of murder or suicide most often lay as they fell, and these two bodies fit that profile. There was still the characteristic drawing up of the extremities as the flesh cooked, but it did not strongly resemble the curled-up bodies he'd seen of victims who'd died by fire and fire alone.
Suspicious by nature and now by circumstance, Becker reached for a flashlight-like device he wore on his belt-the multi-gas-detecting AIM-32/50. Turning it on, he waved it down the sides of the smaller victim-the one nearest to the front door-and wasn't exactly stunned to see that it registered the presence of gasoline.
So, Becker thought, this was probably arson. And from the attitudes of the bodies, it was quite possibly a murder, or a murder/suicide, as well.
Becker tucked in his gas detector, then trained his flashlight again on the smaller body in front of him. Directly over his head, a deafening crash shook the building and rained charcoal down over him, but he barely heard or noted it. The small and perfectly round hole high in the back of the head, above and behind where the ear should have been located-it had burned away-commanded all of his attention. Stepping over the smaller torso, Becker moved over the still-squishy rug, squatted and shone his light on the other victim. Tucked under the side of the torso, a glint of metal shone up when his beam hit it. Becker wasn't going to touch anything at this point, but he lowered his light's trajectory and saw enough to realize that he was looking at the barrel of a gun.
At a little after 11:00 P.M., Inspector Sergeant Dan Cuneo of San Francisco's homicide detail parked his unmarked car on the opposite side of Alamo Square and began to make his way through the large, awestruck, worried crowd. His immediate sense was that this fire was nowhere near to being controlled. Three houses on the block now appeared to be burning, and in the crowd he overheard snatches of panicked conversations, some from what must have been residents. People staring mesmerized, some crying, some talking in hushed tones. As he came closer, he noticed a cordoned-off command area on the steps up the street that led into the park.
Cuneo knew where he needed to go, and he made a beeline toward the white helmet that seemed to hover above the crowd. The white helmet belonged to the incident commander. Every fire scene had an IC, and his power within that setting was absolute. The president of the United States could show up at a fire, wanting to get a better look, and the IC could order him to chill for a while and that would be the end of the discussion.
Cuneo got close enough to make out some of the faces that had gathered around this IC-the name tag over his left pocket said "Shaklee." He was taller than Cuneo's own six feet. Cuneo pushed his way through the crowd, excused himself and presented his badge. Shaklee nodded distractedly, said something into his walkie-talkie, came back to Cuneo. "You need to see Becker." He pointed toward the steps. "The guy talking to the woman in the leather jacket."
Cuneo nodded his thanks and started walking over. He was an edgy man in his early forties, unable to keep still or quiet-he could not eat or listen to a witness or a colleague without humming-and this trait had kept him from retaining a regular partner in homicide. For the past year or more, he'd been working strictly solo. His fellow inspectors considered him a character, but not quite a weirdo. It was a critical distinction.
Handsome in an unusual way, Cuneo's face had an oddly misshapen character as well, almost as though it had once been broken down to its integral pieces and then imperfectly reassembled. His nose initially protruded to a ridge, then hooked left and went flat as though someone had pushed it in like a thumbtack. At times he appeared cross-eyed. He'd obviously survived a serious bout with teenage acne, but instead of scarring, the skin over his cheeks had taken on a stretched, almost shiny look-maybe too many skin peels. An inventory of the individual parts wouldn't indicate it, but somehow the mishmash came together in a way that pleased his girlfriends.
Now he was at the steps. Even here across the street and back into the shelter of the park, the fire was making it uncomfortably warm. Cuneo grabbed a Styrofoam cup of water from a table someone had set up and got himself close enough to listen to Becker and the woman in the leather coat. She wasn't a kid- maybe, Cuneo figured, about his age-but she was still very attractive. Cuneo's antennae for women were always up-he couldn't help himself and saw no reason to change. Close up, he noticed that the woman's jacket hung open, partially revealing an all-grown-up but tight-looking body in a blue silk blouse, and below a thin waist tucked into designer jeans. The woman's stylish medium-length hair picked up highlights from the flames. One of the ageless babes, he thought, as he auto- matically checked for a wedding ring-not that it always mattered. She wore one.
He moved a step closer, started flicking the side of his cup with his fingers.
"... as soon as I saw it on the television," the woman was saying. "I was just over here with Paul this afternoon, so I knew exactly ..."
Becker held up a finger, stopping her, directed a flat gaze to Cuneo. "Can I help you?"
Cuneo quickly brought his cup to his mouth and flicked free the last of the ice. Flashing his badge, he mumbled around the small cubes. "Sorry. Dan Cuneo. Homicide."
Becker stuck a hand out. "Becker. Arson. And that's what this is."
The woman turned to face Cuneo. "You're with homicide? Is somebody dead in there then?" Back to Becker. "You know that? God, it's got to be Paul."
Cuneo: "Paul who?"
"Paul Hanover. It's his house." She turned all the way around and stared back at what was left of the place. By this time, the fire had collapsed much of the structure. The front doorway still stood, and most of the second floor, but the third and fourth stories were all but gone. "He's in there? You've got to get him out before ..."
Becker cut her off. "There's no reason to get him out, ma'am. He was dead a half hour ago. If you knew him, I'm sorry." Pointing toward the house, Becker said to Cuneo, "They're directing the master streams- that's those major hoses-to try and preserve as much of your crime scene as they can. But there's no telling."
Cuneo nodded. "The call said there were two of them."
"Oh my God," the woman said again. "That's got to be Missy, too."
Cuneo turned from the house to the woman, introduced himself again, flashed his badge. "And who are you, please?"
"Catherine Hanover. I'm Paul's daughter-in-law. Paul Hanover. He lives, lived here."
"Excuse me," Cuneo said, "are you talking about the Paul Hanover?"
"If you mean the lawyer, yes." She looked back to the house. "I can't believe he's in there."
"Somebody's in there," Becker said, "but we don't know it's Mr. Hanover. Or Missy."
"Who's Missy?" Cuneo asked.
"Michelle D'Amiens, Paul's girlfriend. Fiancée. Everybody called her Missy. They were getting married in the fall." Suddenly, a bolt of panic shot through her. "Can't you do anything? You can't just let them stay in there. There won't be anything left of them."
Becker's mouth was set as he shared a look with Cuneo. Both knew the awful truth, that the bodies were already unrecognizable, charred beyond any hope of recognition. Identification and forensic evidence, if any, would mostly come from a lab now. Neither they nor anyone else could do anything to change that.
"Mrs. Hanover," Becker said, "maybe you want to find a place to sit. Or go on home. Whatever happens here is going to take a long while. We can get your address and phone number and contact you in the morning."
But Cuneo wasn't quite ready to dismiss her. "Did I hear you say that you were over here at this house earlier today?"
"Why was that?"
"I wanted to talk to Paul about something, just some family stuff."
"Did you see him?"
She nodded. "Yes. We had some coffee." Her eyes were drawn back to the inferno. Bringing her hand up, she rubbed her forehead. "He can't be in there right now. That's just not possible. And Missy."
"Was Missy there when you talked to Paul today?" Cuneo asked.
"No. I don't know. I didn't see her, anyway."
"So what was the family stuff?"
The question stopped her and she frowned. "Why? What difference would that make?"
Cuneo looked to Becker, who shrugged. He came back to Catherine Hanover. "I don't know. If the man's dead, everything he did in his last hours is going to come under scrutiny. If this was arson, and Inspector Becker here says it is, somebody might have started the fire to kill somebody in the house. I'm going to want to know everything about his last day."
Becker butted in. "Could you please excuse us for a minute, ma'am?" Without waiting for her reply, he stepped in front of her and hooked an arm into Cuneo's to turn him. When they'd moved off half a dozen steps, he said, "Before you go too far with her, maybe you should know that there was a gun under the larger torso, probably the man, maybe this Hanover. Also what looks like a bullet hole in one of the heads. Hers. Maybe in his, too, but I didn't want to touch and turn him to find out."
Again, Becker shrugged. "Maybe. That's one thing that fits, anyway. The gun was under his body."
"He did himself and fell on the gun?"
"Maybe. Could be. That works. If the whole place goes up, I've got a roll of pictures I took you can look at tomorrow, then decide. Other- wise, if they can save the foyer, we might pull a break and be able to get in again by sunrise." He glanced at the fire. "Not much before, I wouldn't think."
Cuneo nodded, found his eyes drawn back across the street, where most of the firefighting activity had now come to be centered on the houses to either side of Hanover's. Becker could be right. It looked to Cuneo as though part of the crime scene might be salvaged after all. "So where'd this woman come from?"
"She said she was home watching TV and saw it on the news and recognized the place."
"Where's the rest of her family?"
"I don't know. I didn't ask. Maybe there isn't any rest of it. I had just started talking to her when you got here."
"All right." Cuneo cast a glance over to Mrs. Hanover, who was also staring at the blaze, hypnotized by it. He came back to Becker. "But it's definitely arson?"
"There was definitely gasoline residue under the smaller body."
"That's not enough?"
"No, I didn't mean that."
They had moved out in front of Mrs. Hanover, and now both men looked back to where she stood. Her coloring was high, unwitting excitement on her face, in the look in her eyes. With the heat from the fire, she'd removed her jacket and held it by a finger over her shoulder, a posture that emphasized her already generous bosom. "That's a damn fine-looking woman," Cuneo said.
"You going to let her go home?" Becker asked.
Cuneo kept his eyes on her. "Couple more minutes," he said.