Firefighter: Warehouse missing from fire-inspection records

 

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The illegally occupied warehouse where 36 partygoers burned to death was not in the database Oakland fire inspectors use to schedule what are supposed to be annual inspections of commercial buildings, a firefighter with knowledge of the situation said Thursday.

There also was no record of the building, called the Ghost Ship by the artist colony that lived there and hosted Friday’s for-pay public concert at the warehouse, ever being inspected by Oakland fire officials, the firefighter said. The firefighter spoke anonymously for fear of retribution.

Typically, fire inspectors pull addresses from the database to request routine inspections for fire hazards, the firefighter said. In 2014, a grand jury said 4,000 out of 11,000 commercial buildings in the city go without what are supposed to be yearly inspections. Oakland officials blamed short staffing and funding.

Fire department spokeswoman Rebecca Kozak said Thursday she didn’t know whether the warehouse’s address was in the database of buildings to be checked.

She also said authorities were still trying determine when — or if — fire officials inspected the warehouse before the fire. She said she was processing 40 to 50 public records request from news media and that confusion over the warehouse’s address is slowing the process.

The fire broke out during a dance party Friday night in the cluttered warehouse. The structure had been converted to artists’ studios and illegal living spaces, and former occupants said it was a death trap of piled wood, furniture, snaking electrical cords and only two exits.

City and state officials fielded complaints for years about dangerous conditions, drugs, neglected children, trash, thefts and squabbles at the warehouse, raising questions about why it wasn’t shut down. The district attorney has warned of possible murder charges as she determines whether there were any crimes linked to the blaze.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the city will look to strengthen regulations for smoke alarms and exits and clarify city employees’ responsibilities to monitor unsafe structures.

City building department chief Darin Ranelletti said Wednesday there also was no record of building inspectors visiting the warehouse in the 30 years of inspection reports still on hand. He said inspectors only seek entry into buildings when a new construction permit is applied for or when the department receives complaints. Ranelletti says inspectors try to work with owners to gain access, but a court order is required when they are denied entry.

Federal investigators said Wednesday the fire started on the ground and soon was raging, with smoke billowing into the second level and trapping victims whose only escape route was through the flames.

“The occupants were consumed by smoke before they could get out of the building,” said Jill Snyder, special agent in charge of the San Francisco office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

She confirmed there were no sprinklers or a fire alarm system in the building.

Snyder said investigators were examining a refrigerator and other potential sources of the fire but had not reached any conclusions. She said the electrical system would be examined. Investigators have not found evidence of arson, but she said they have also not ruled it out.

Snyder indicated it would be at least several weeks before the investigation was completed.

Officials hope to create a virtual, 3D reconstruction of the building for criminal and civil investigations and to provide answers to family members about their loved ones’ last moments, said Sgt. Ray Kelly, spokesman for the Alameda County sheriff.

“Where was my son or daughter? Where were they standing? How come they didn’t get out?” he said. “Families want answers. They need answers.”

Kelly said Thursday said that authorities had identified the final victim.

Investigators concluded their search for bodies Wednesday.

Danielle Boudreaux, a 40-year-old hairdresser who was close with Derick Ion Almena, the founder of the artists’ colony, and his partner, Micah Allison, said it was full of extension cords plugged into each other that helped supply power to music equipment, microwaves and hot plates.

There were also RVs inside, she said.

Almena has not responded to emails or calls by The Associated Press to phone numbers associated with him. He has said he didn’t attend the event Friday night, and that he is sorry.

In Baltimore, officials shut down an arts building for safety violations and evicted dozens of tenants three days after the fatal fire in Oakland.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer told the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/2h7NIpN) that he will meet next week with the fire chief and the head of the building and safety department to discuss what he calls an aggressive response to illegal apartment and loft conversions in commercial buildings.

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