Shortly after 7 this morning, October 26, as I was approaching SDSU on the Number 11 bus, I saw smoke billowing up beyond the intersection of Montezuma Road and Campanile Drive. It looked to be rising from one of the new campus dorms that face on College Avenue. There were a number of fire trucks already on the scene, but additional ones kept arriving, including one that went into the oncoming lane, causing the signal at the intersection to stop our entrance onto the campus for quite a few minutes.
At last, as we waited, I saw an extension ladder that firefighters had climbed to a rooftop to fight flames now shooting skyward. It became clear then that the fire was in the McDonald’s restaurant on the north side of Montezuma between College and Campanile.
The bus finally ran the red light that would not turn, and I got out at the first stop to see how close I could get to the scene. A campus police officer blocked my way, so that I had to circle around to find a good angle to take pictures.
As I was being blocked from speaking to anyone in authority, I proceeded onto campus where I ran into a young man I recognized as a regular morning McDonald’s customer. Brandan King, who said he works for the “SDSU Aztecs,” told me he saw the fire starting in the “frier,” where hash browns and french fries are cooked in boiling oil. As customers began evacuating, several servers announced they had put the fire out.
“‘Uh, no,’ I yelled,” King told me, “the fire’s gone up the exhaust chute and is in the roof.” Employees called the fire department, as the fire took hold above them, according to King.
Once the firefighters got onto the roof, it didn’t take long to douse the flames. But the smoke kept billowing for a good while.
After an hour and a half, I circled back around to see if I might speak to the franchise owner. I had recognized him earlier standing outside the restaurant speaking to fire fighters. I was now able to approach the front door and address him, as he was discussing the scene with a manager who occasionally comes in for 15 minutes to issue instructions to servers and reposition things that are out of place.
The two gentlemen, who were noticeably agitated, told me what happened earlier was that “a small fire broke out within the exhaust fans.” In true corporate fashion, they then said I must address any further questions I had to their “media relations” firm, Nuffer, Smith, Tucker.
After I called, company vice president Price Adams emailed me, identifying the owner/operator as Bob Sutherland, who owns six other McDonald’s stores in San Diego. She included a statement from Sutherland that reads in part: “Thankfully, no customers or crew were injured. Our team is currently assessing the damage and will be closed until repairs can be made. We’re extremely grateful for the quick response from San Diego Fire-Rescue.”
Last year, management decided to stay open all night to accommodate students who study - and party – late. There has been a price to pay. Often customers are rowdy and leave behind big messes. Despite that, the restaurant has good customer service personnel. To help them cope, the restaurant has been sending in experienced managers. “Right now,” one server told me recently, “there is a lot of confusion. There are too many chiefs.”