Oakland fire captain warned of dangerous building in January

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- An Oakland fire captain recommended in January that a building that burned this week, killing four people, should be shut down immediately for safety reasons, but department officials opted to take less drastic measures, records released Friday show.

In an email dated Jan. 8 and titled "Fire Safety Hazard," Fire Captain Richard Chew reported that a fire alarm had been pulled and not reset and there were open piles of garbage on the third floor of the building and a padlock on the door to the fire escape.

He recommended officials consider shutting down the building immediately "due to the danger to life safety."

The records show Battalion Chief Geoff Hunter ordered Chew to cut the padlock and other officials to contact the building's owner to fix the alarm and remove trash.

Acting Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini, head of the fire prevention bureau, responded that it was appropriate to give the owner 30 days to make repairs.

Oakland became the site of the deadliest structure fire in the U.S. in a decade when 36 people died in a December blaze at a warehouse known as the Ghost Ship that had been illegally converted into live and work spaces for artists. Officials then vowed to crack down on substandard housing and conduct more inspections.

A Jan. 9 email by another fire captain regarding the building that burned Monday reported there were no fire extinguishers in the building. Fire Lt. Steve Padgett reported in a Feb. 25 email that the address is a "known fire hazard."

"There are no fire extinguishers. Storage in the hallways. Faulty or unmaintained smoke detectors," he wrote. "This building is dangerous! Please let Station 15 know what we can do to get this place shut down, updated and repaired."

The city disclosed the emails as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced Friday that she was ordering an overhaul of fire safety inspection services.

Schaaf told The Associated Press this week that new streamlined communications she put in place after the Ghost Ship fire to keep problem buildings from slipping through the cracks seem to have improved and worked in this case.

She said firefighters answering a call in February at the building reported possible problems, which prompted an inspection last week.

Yet the emails appear to contradict Schaaf's account, showing that Chew raised concerns in January, and possibly earlier, though officials did not release emails from before January.

She said the city didn't have the authority to immediately shut down the property, which requires a declaration that a building is unsafe for human habitation.

The building's owner, Keith Kim, has not responded to repeated messages, including ones left Friday, and his attorney also has not responded to calls and emails.

Kim was in the process of evicting Urojas Community Services, the tenant that leased two of the three floors. Urojas provided services to low-income people recovering from addiction or who had been recently homeless.

The emails released Friday show mounting concerns -- and growing frustration-- by fire officials.

In a March 18 email, Fire Lt. Frank Mui listed "what appears to be household extension cords used to supply electricity to different units in the building," including between the second and third floors via the central stairway. Rats had chewed through the insulation on one extension cord, he wrote.

Minutes later, Battalion Chief Jeff Hunter shot off an email to Sabatini, of the fire prevention bureau. He wrote that the problems "still exist and seem to be getting worse" and that "this building appears to be hazardous to both our public and our firefighters."

Inspectors finally conducted an annual inspection on March 24. They again found multiple fire code violations, including inoperable sprinklers and alarms. Officials also noted a lack of fire extinguishers and overloaded electrical cords during the inspection.

"This is the beginning of a coordinated effort along with Building Services to address the issues at this location," Sabatini wrote.

The owner was given 30 days to correct the problems.

Three days later, the fire broke out.

Dr. Aurea Lewis spoke at a media conference Friday where she held up a picture of her brother, Edwarn Anderson. She said the 64-year-old was one of four victims to die in the fire.

“He lived in Oakland all his life,” she said. “West Oakland was his home. Wherever we went, we knew to come back home.”

Lewis and Rev. Dr. Jasper Lowery are the directors of Urojas Community Services. They said they began complaining to the building’s property owner about unsafe living conditions in October 2016 after they expanded from the second floor to the first floor.

“We found that the first floor was in worse shape than the second floor so therefore we needed him to come in and fix the building,” Lowery said.

Attorney James Cook represents the organization because they were in the process of being evicted by the owner for allegedly failing to pay rent. Cook, however, said they have proof of payment.

City leaders said a candle set off Monday’s accidental fire at the apartment building.

“I do think that even if you have a burning candle that starts something on fire, if some of the issues were fixed that we were in dispute about, maybe the devastation wouldn’t have been so bad,” he said.

The directors said their main focus now is burying the victims, and helping the displaced find somewhere to live.

Donations for Urojas Community Services are being collected online. For more information, visit this YouCaring site.