Site of deadly Oakland fire has history of violations: 2 Investigates
City records obtained by 2 Investigates show a decade of code compliance issues at 2551 San Pablo Avenue, the site of Monday’s deadly fire in West Oakland.
Three days before the March 27 fire, a city inspector issued eight fire code violations that cited the fire alarm system, fire sprinkler system, emergency lighting and exit signs, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, evacuations maps, extension cords in lieu of electrical outlets, and furniture in the interior area.
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Tenant Gail Harbin lived on the first floor of the low-income residence for about a year. She said she remembers screams from the morning of the blaze.
“People were running through the building. Fire! Fire! Get out! Get out!” she told 2 Investigates.
Harbin said she remembers alarms from possibly one part of the building, but she didn’t remember sprinklers going off. During the investigation, questions have arisen about whether the building had properly operating alarms and sprinkler systems, but fire investigators have not made a final determination yet.
2 Investigates also requested other code compliance complaints involving the building. In the last 10 years, the property has been the source of 20 code compliance complaints from both tenants and employees working at Urojas Community Services, a non-profit based in the building that offers transitional housing and services.
The complaints detailed problems of mold, no hot water, garbage, and holes in the walls and ceiling. According to city records, three complaints had violations and 11 have been closed. Seven are currently open.
Attorney James Cook, who represents the Urojas Community Services group said the center was the master tenant, housing people on the first two floors of the building. The property owner was in the process of evicting the organization.
Cook said many of the residents were elderly, mentally ill, or suffered from substance abuse problems. He said, if evicted, many had nowhere else to go and would become homeless. He told 2 Investigates that he had completed a walk-through of the property just weeks before the fire.
“Some of the rooms people are doubled and tripled up,” he said. “You see exposed wires. You see water leakage, virtually a river on the first floor.”
Cook said he did not recall seeing a fire alarm system or sprinklers during his tour on March 12.
2 Investigates tried contacting the property owner, but was unsuccessful as of Wednesday. The team also went to the City’s inspection department for answers about the fire code violations, but did not receive a response.
According to city records, the property owner had 30 days to fix the violations. A follow-up inspection was scheduled for April 18.
Tenant Gail Harbin said she believes the owner and the City could have done more to keep tenants safe.
“Pastor Lowery had provided fire extinguishers he bought out of his own pocket… not the property owner,” Harbin said. “It tells me that the owner did not care.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association, cities can require “fire watch” be hired when fire safety violations are issued. “Fire watch” is basically a fire security guard patrolling the property until the fire code violations are abated. The requirement would have to be mandated by city law. As of Thursday, it is unclear if Oakland officials considered or were required to consult or hire “fire watch” guards. 2 Investigates is still waiting for answers from city officials.
Written by 2 Investigates reporter Candice Nguyen