OAKLAND, Calif. — Building inspectors found multiple fire code violations at a Northern California building just three days before a blaze erupted, killing three of the low-income residents.
During a Friday inspection, officials found the building lacked fire extinguishers, smoke detectors in every apartment and a working fire sprinkler system, among other violations, documents released by the city of Oakland show. Inspectors ordered the owner to immediately service the fire alarm and fire sprinkler systems.
In Monday's pre-dawn darkness, resident Michael Jones said he was awakened by screams of “fire,” bolted out of bed and instinctively pounded on the doors of his elderly neighbors and ushered them to safety — walkers and all.
Jones, 43, then found Princess, the “house” pit bull, cowering in the backyard, and the two ran out the front door as glass shattered from the heat.
A few hours later, he and the dog stood across the street, staring at the smoldering wooden structure that housed some 80 recovering drug addicts and former homeless people, many of whom complained that they had not heard alarms, felt sprinklers or found fire extinguishers as they fled the substandard living conditions.
The owner, Keith Kim, did not return telephone calls from The Associated Press.
The blaze gutted the building and killed three people and injured four others. One resident remained missing Monday.
The Alameda County coroner identified one of the victims as 64-year-old Edwarn Anderson, of Oakland.
Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Erik Logan said some people were hanging from windows and others were in fire escapes when firefighters arrived.
The fire broke out in the rundown neighborhood nearly three months after a warehouse called the Ghost Ship caught fire and killed 36 people attending an unlicensed concert about five miles (eight kilometers) away.
The fires have raised questions about the use of some buildings in the city for residences amid a shortage of affordable housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“At least the rats are gone,” said Angela Taylor, 62, clutching her purse, the only possession she managed to get out of a room she paid $550 a month to live in. “It's the wrong purse, but it's better than nothing. A lady needs her purse.”
In 2010, Oakland allowed the owner of the 40-unit building to convert the structure into transitional housing for recovering drug addicts, people struggling with homelessness and others, records show.
Since then, it has been the subject of several building department citations and investigations. City records show building officials verified complaints filed by the nonprofit organization that rents most of the building about deferred maintenance.
Kim was sent a notice of violation on March 2 over complaints of large amounts of trash and debris, building materials and furniture behind the property.
The building department also has an open investigation into complaints of “no working heat throughout the building, electrical issues and a large pest infestation,” city records show.
City fire officials have been criticized for failing to inspect the Ghost Ship warehouse and the mayor conceded that city agencies need to improve communications after records showed police responding to a number of complaints there in the months before the Dec. 2 blaze.
The cause of the Ghost Ship fire is still under investigation and Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed announced she would retire May 2.
Days after the warehouse fire, the owner of the building that burned Monday sent an eviction notice to Urojas Community Center, which had leased the first two floors of the three-story building, said James Cook, an attorney for the center.
The center assists about 60 people with transitional housing and services, Cook said. He had complained to the city about clogged toilets and disgusting bathrooms, exposed wires and water an inch deep on the ground floor, he said.
“It's like Ghost Ship, but worse,” Cook said.
Residents said the hallways were cluttered with trash and debris.
“There were no sprinklers or fire extinguishers,” said Curtis Robinson, 52, who had to leave his wheelchair behind in his first floor room in the scramble to escape.