Investigators look into buildings' ownership, timing, other similarities
For the second morning in a row, neighbors and retailers in a 10-block stretch of Montavilla awoke to the stench of smoke and the sight of the charred remains of commercial buildings.
'I think there's an arsonist going around here in this neighborhood,' said Kim Nguyen, who heard activity near a building at the corner of Northeast Glisan Street and 80th Avenue just before it burst into flames Thursday at 5:23 a.m.
The two-story building housed a secondhand store, the Club Rio nightclub and Kitty's Playhouse, an adult book and video store that had not yet opened.
The three-alarm blaze destroyed the property, though the cost of the damage had not been estimated, city Fire Bureau spokesman Neil Heesacker said Thursday.
The day before, at 4:45 a.m., crews were dispatched to a four-alarm fire at the corner of Southeast Stark Street and 79th Avenue. That building housed a gift and toy warehouse and retail store, Gifts & Toys, that had been a neighborhood landmark for 10 years. That damage is estimated at $1.1 million, Heesacker said.
Investigators on Thursday were still looking into the cause of both fires, and fire officials would not link the two.
'We don't know which road this thing is going down,' Heesacker said.
But onlookers on Thursday morning considered arson to be a possibility, looking at the similarities between the two events.
Both happened in the same neighborhood, and both happened around the same time of the morning. Neighbors say both properties are owned by Asian women, the first by Vien Tri Hua and the second by Young Kim.
'I think that a day apart is a little unusual,' said Kimberly McClain, president of the Montavilla Neighborhood Association. 'I'll be curious to find out what the fire investigators find out.'
Asian organizations contacted by the Tribune, expressed no panic, saying it was too early to jump to conclusions.
Rosalind Hui, editor of the Portland Chinese Times, said she awoke to see the second day's fire on the morning news and thought, 'Why both Asian stores?' But, she added, 'I never thought they were targeting Asian stores.'
Sung Rae Cho, who owns a convenience store in Southeast Portland and last year was president of the Korean American Grocers Association, said he has not heard of harassment or violence aimed at Asian businesses in Portland.
'I never have those experiences, never see those kind of things happen around me,' he said. 'I love this state.'
Cho said it hadn't occurred to him that the two fires might be linked but called the similarities 'very interesting.'
Sound of breaking glass
There were no reported witnesses to Wednesday's fire, but Nguyen, who lives in an apartment near the burned building on Glisan, appears to be the primary witness in Thursday's incident.
She told investigators that she works a night job as a card dealer at a local casino and was just getting into bed Thursday morning around 5 when she heard the sound of breaking glass.
She thought it was kids breaking into someone's car on the street and didn't get up, but she did less than a minute later when she heard people shouting to each other.
'I pulled up my miniblinds and saw a big fire,' she said. She also said she saw a red SUV, which she described as boxy looking, perhaps a Jeep Cherokee, speed away and turn south on Northeast 80th Avenue.
She scrambled to call 911 while at the same time checking for license plates on the vehicle, but did not see them, she said. She got a glimpse of the driver, however, describing him as clean-shaven and Caucasian. She said she didn't notice if there was a passenger in the car.
Nguyen said she looked back at the building and saw that the window of the secondhand store had been broken and that flames were shooting up to the attic, which Club Rio occupied. Heesacker said firefighters were able to pull out before the roof collapsed. There were no injuries.
Heesacker said the bureau has a lot to investigate. Club Rio has been a topic of discussion in the past among gang officers and city crime prevention specialists who track Hispanic gang activity.
Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a police spokesman, said that other than routine property crimes, he knows of no unusual criminal activity in the area. Police would assist firefighters in patrols or an investigation if asked, he said.
McClain said neighbors had been inquiring about ways they could stop the adult video store from opening but had just learned they had no legal recourse.
'We weren't happy about that,' she said. 'But were just getting ready to contact the business owner and making sure if it was going to be in the neighborhood, it would be quiet and nonintrusive.'
Montavilla tries for comeback
While residents don't know what to make of the two fires, they hope both spaces will be redeveloped wisely.
'Before, there was a lot of empty space,' said Ty DuPuis, owner of Flying Pie Pizzeria, four doors down from the toy warehouse. 'Hopefully, they'll do something good with the space and not leave it vacant. The neighborhood is slowly getting better, coming back around.'
McClain said the neighborhood association had just met Tuesday evening about improving the area near Stark and Washington streets.
Now that the fire has destroyed two businesses, she said the association will go forward and research its options. 'Hopefully this won't be too devastating to that strip there,' she said.
Montavilla is an older neighborhood with many aging buildings surrounded by single-family homes.
Many who live near the gift and toy store remembered buying their Levi's jeans there when it was a department store. That business closed after the owners at the time sold the property to Vien Tri Hua.
Hua's sister, Tran Luu, ran the store, selling everything from perfume to suitcases, toys, lamps, picture frames and other trinkets. The clientele included retail customers as well as wholesale and local variety stores.
While the Montavilla neighborhood does have a high rate of property crimes, McClain said, 'it's still somewhat affordable for people to buy homes.' If it is arson, she said, 'having this person in the neighborhood is disturbing.'