Oakland building inspections questioned after fatal warehouse fire

OAKLAND (KTVU) -- The devastating fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale District on Dec. 2, is raising new questions about the city's ability to inspect buildings and prosecute those who violate safety codes.

Oakland's planning director has admitted that the warehouse on 31st Street near International Avenue had not been inspected for more than 30 years.  At least 36 people were killed when a fire tore through the cluttered warehouse, which was hosting an electronic dance party. The victims, ranging in age from 17 to 61, died while attending a $10-a-head dance party at the warehouse.

Many wonder how the building was able to bypass inspections over the years considering that previous tenants say they filed complaints with the city regarding the accumulation of trash, pests and the slipshod interior structure. Many visitors to the building have said wooden pallets were used to form a makeshift staircase and electricity was illegally siphoned into the building.

Zac Unger, vice president of the Oakland Fire Department's Union, told KTVU this week, "We're not inspecting all the buildings, because the fire chief is under-invested in our infrastructure, so had we had more people (or) had she invested in those positions, I'd hope we'd be able to look at more buildings."

Unger said Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed failed to hire enough code inspectors to properly check all of the buildings inside Oakland city limits.

Oakland is currently staffed with one fire marshal and five active inspectors, all of whom serve a city with a population of about 391,000 residents. Compare that to San Francisco, which is has one fire marshal, 88 inspectors and 837,000 residents.

In San Jose, there's one fire marshal and 45 inspectors for roughly 946,000 people.

Firefighters who did not want to go on camera for fear of retaliation told KTVU that the problem isn't just lack of staffing, which would allow them to keep better tabs on who is occupying which buildings, it's the lack of an accurate data base."

They say the current system is not user-friendly and that it is difficult to add information or retrieve it.

Oakland fire officials are supposed to annually inspect commercial buildings for fire safety, with only single-family homes and duplexes exempted. Officials typically pull addresses from a database to request the yearly checks, said the firefighter, who feared retribution for disclosing the information and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

"Commercial inspections are conducted as time permits during a fire station's 24-hour shift and are not routinely scheduled on an appointment basis," the city's website explains.

There's a fire station right around the corner from the warehouse, which Derick Ion Almena, a sometimes-photographer who rented the building and sub-leased living space to artists, had dubbed the Ghost Ship.

Firefighters also point out that buildings can be red-tagged but the city won't allow closures because it would result in evictions.

The fire department and Mayor Libby Schaaf each said Thursday they could not yet say when -- or if -- a fire inspector examined the warehouse. 
 
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. 
 
Kozak 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. 
 
Erica Terry Derryck, Schaaf's spokeswoman, said the mayor's office was putting together "what contact all city agencies have had with this property."
 
Some say it's the mayor and city council who should allot more funding for the fire department.

Chief Reed and Mayor Schaaf did not respond to requests for information from KTVU. And all media requests were being routed through the City Administrator's office.

Mayor Schaaf announced yesterday that today a national and local task force would be working on fire safety though codes, inspection and enforcement.

By KTVU reporter Tara Moriarty. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

List of victim identities released by Oakland, county officials

  • Jason McCarty, 35
  • Wolfgang Renner, 61
  • Billy Dixon, 35, of Oakland
  • Johnny Igaz, 34 of Oakland
  • Amanda Kershaw, 34, of San Francisco
  • Ara Jo, 29, of Oakland
  • Griffin Madden, 23, of Berkeley
  • Vanessa Plotkin, 21, of Lakewood
  • Hanna Ruax, 32, of Finland
  • Nicole Siegrist, 29, of Oakland
  • Alex Vega, 22, from San Bruno
  • Cash Askew, 22
  • Em Bohlka, 33
  • David Cline, 24
  • Micah Danemayer. 28
  • Alex Ghassan, 35
  • Travis Hough, 35
  • Donna Kellogg, 32
  • Edmond Lapine, 34
  • Benjamin Runnels
  • Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye
  • Chelsea Dolan, 33, of San Francisco
  • Nick Gomez-Hall, 25 of Coronado
  • Michela Gregory, 20, of South San Francisco
  • Sara Hoda, 30, of Walnut Creek
  • Jennifer Morris, 21, of Foster City
  • Feral Pines of Berkeley
  • Draven McGill, 17
  • Brandon Chase Wittenauer of Hayward
  • Joey Casio, 36, of Oakland 
  • Alana Kane, 35, of Oakland 

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