Inspectors ordered dangerous extension cords removed before fatal Oakland fire

A fire marshal overruled a fire captain's recommendation to shutter the building

By Daniel Borenstein
East Bay Times

OAKLAND, Calif. — Three days before a candle likely ignited a Oakland apartment house blaze that killed four people, inspectors ordered a dangerous extension cord removed from the same room where the fire started.

The news, revealed in an interview Tuesday with Oakland Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini, raises the possibility that a resident of the second-floor room was using a candle because electricity was no longer available.

Firefighters battle the apartment fire in Oakland, Calif.
Firefighters battle the apartment fire in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

“That might have been the case,” Sabatini said. That question, and whether the extension cord feeding electricity from elsewhere in the building had actually been disconnected, will probably be part of the ongoing investigation into the fire, she said.

Sabatini was a fire department arson investigator before she was brought over to the Fire Prevention Bureau starting Jan. 3 to help with inspections in the wake of the infamous Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 people.

She was part of a 2 1/2-month string of email communications about the San Pablo Avenue boarding house that began Jan. 8, after firefighters responded to a medical call at the building.

“I recommend that we consider shutting this building down immediately due to the danger to life safety,” wrote Capt. Richard Chew. But Sabatini overruled him and directed the property owner be given 30 days to fix the problems.

Sabatini said Tuesday that she later accompanied two fire inspectors into the building on Friday March 24. The inspection report from the visit detailed 11 deficiencies, which have been widely reported since the fire.

Sabatini said none of them were considered life-threatening. “I don’t want people to think we left a building that we thought was an imminent danger,” she said.

She said she would have tried to shut the building down if, for example, exits were blocked, windows were barred or fire alarms didn’t function.

That wasn’t the case, she said. “We left the building because there were no imminent life safety hazards that would have required anything other than what we did.”

But Sabatini said they told Monsa Nitoto, who identified himself to the inspectors as a part-owner of the building, that they would be back the next week to make sure the problems were being corrected.

“We explained we would be back after the weekend to follow up,” she recalled. “We were impressing upon the owner the urgency.”

That follow-up inspection never happened because the building burned the following Monday morning.

Sabatini provided previously undisclosed details about some of the deficiencies listed in the report. For example, she said the fire alarm was working but had an error message that it required service.

The sprinkler system, which was only on the third floor, was not operative. While the inspectors required its immediate servicing, the system was not legally required because of the age of the building, Sabatini said.

The building also had an inadequate number of fire extinguishers and lacked required evacuation diagrams.

The inspectors did not enter all the rooms. “We weren’t trying to go into individual units because we don’t have the authority for that,” she said. “Those are people’s private spaces. It was the common areas that we were focused on.”

If they heard activity inside, they knocked on the doors and requested permission to enter.

In two cases, Sabatini said, her team noticed extension cords leading under doors into rooms. One was the room where the fire later started. The preliminary finding is that a candle started the blaze, according to city spokeswoman Karen Boyd.

Sabatini said she did not notice candles during the inspection. “Any candle use, we would have tried to stop that immediately,” she said.

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