Oakland fire chief: Department was unaware of Ghost Ship concerns

Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said the department was unaware the building had been transformed into a residence and party site because no permits were ever requested

By Evan Sernoffsky and Steve Rubenstein
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Despite a stream of complaints from neighbors, a previous fire in a vacant lot next door, an inspection of an adjacent auto repair shop — and a fire station just blocks away — Oakland’s fire chief conceded Tuesday that her department was not “aware what was going on” in the Ghost Ship artist collective until 36 people died in a fire there.

Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said she had “no record of complaints being referred to the Fire Department” about the Fruitvale district warehouse. Moreover, she said the department was unaware the building had been transformed into a residence and party site because no permits were ever requested that would have triggered a fire-safety inspection.

After a department review of reports and dispatch logs, “I can say that we do not have any record stating that our firefighters had made entry or were aware of what was going on” at the building on 31st Avenue near International Boulevard, the chief said at a news conference.

Federal and local investigators said they still don’t know the cause of the Dec. 2 blaze, which killed 36 people at an electronic music event. It was the deadliest fire in Oakland’s history.

Officials with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said they had not completed analyzing all potential evidence collected from the two-story converted warehouse.

“All our findings will be submitted to the Oakland Fire Department, who will prepare the final report,” said Jill Snyder, special agent in charge at the ATF’s San Francisco field office. “No final determination has been made as to cause.”

She said the agency is looking into the building’s electrical system as a possible ignition source. That electrical system has been described by witnesses as a hodgepodge of exposed wires and extension cords hooked up to aging appliances.

Deloach Reed said department records indicated the Ghost Ship was an empty warehouse that would not have qualified for a state-mandated fire inspection.

“We do not inspect vacant buildings. We only inspect active businesses,” she said.

The chief said fire inspectors are responsible for checking about 1,800 buildings in the city, including large, multiunit residential buildings, schools, hospitals, jails and places of assembly. Firefighters at neighborhood stations make checks on thousands of other commercial buildings.

The Fire Department’s eight inspectors visit a site when owners file a permit for change of use or occupancy, or when there are complaints, Deloach Reed said. There were no records of any such complaints or permit requests at the Ghost Ship that would have triggered an inspection, she added.

Fire Department officials had begun Monday to talk with firefighters who reportedly knew about people and problems at the warehouse, “and those conversations are still ongoing,” the chief said.

A fire at a vacant lot next door to the warehouse two years ago and a visit by inspectors this year to the site of a closed auto repair business adjacent to the Ghost Ship did not lead to an inspection of the doomed warehouse itself, Deloach Reed said.

Families of the victims were not satisfied with the Fire Department’s account of its actions.

“Even if they had no complaints, if they had been doing routine checks they would have seen something,” said Natalie Jahanbani, the partner of fire victim Em B — also known as Em Bohlka — a 33-year-old Oakland poet, baker and barista. “If you’re around the corner at the fire station, wouldn’t you see people coming and going?”

Jahanbani, an Oakland baker, said the lack of inspection seemed to represent the failings of multiple agencies and a lack of communication among them. But she said the Fire Department “should have known something.”

“If it’s not up to them, then who is it up to?” Jahanbani said.

City building inspectors went to the warehouse Nov. 17 to investigate complaints of trash heaped in the vacant lot next to the building and illegal housing units inside. But city records show that on Nov. 14, the building department opened a second case looking into “illegal interior building.”

None of those complaints apparently reached the Fire Department, and building department officials said their inspectors were unable to gain access to the vacant lot on Nov. 17, then didn’t return.

In June 2014, building inspectors responded to complaints of trash, construction debris and rodents at the Ghost Ship building.

Neighbors near the warehouse and people who lived there said police frequently responded to the building to investigate complaints.

“As for the Police Department, we are currently in the process right now of going through all of those files and we will be making those available as soon as we can,” City Administrator Sabrina Landreth said at Tuesday’s news conference.

Complicating matters for city fire inspectors in general, Deloach Reed said, are the many “pop-up underground parties” around Oakland.

“You have a situation where folks are coming together and they are not applying for special permits, they’re just posting flyers 24 hours in advance and they’re bringing hundreds of people in for different functions. Right now we do not have the resources to track those types of functions,” Deloach Reed said.

The Oakland Police Department learned in early January 2015 that a New Year’s Eve party had been held in the Ghost Ship building a few days earlier. It is unclear from police reports whether officers set foot inside the building when they went there to investigate a complaint against the Ghost Ship’s operator, Derick Ion Almena.

The lack of inspections and the absence of communication among agencies came to a disastrous head just before 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 2. The Ghost Ship fire ignited on the bottom floor before quickly spreading and engulfing the building within minutes. There was no sprinkler system or working fire alarms in the the 160-by-48-foot building.

Investigators with the Alameda County district attorney’s office are looking into into possible criminal charges. On Tuesday, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley promised a “thorough, methodical” investigation into possible criminal culpability.

In the meantime, Deloach Reed said her department is consulting with the National Fire Prevention Association, a group that reviews and recommends fire safety codes, and considering how to change its record-keeping system. She acknowledged the city needs to devise a better way for departments to communicate and share records.

“We are trying to answer the question of how we can prevent this from happening again,” she said.

Copyright 2016 the San Francisco Chronicle

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