Did authorities miss opportunities to prevent tragic fire?
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — City and state officials fielded years of complaints about dangerous conditions, drugs, neglected children, trash, thefts and squabbles at the illegally converted warehouse where 36 partygoers were killed in a weekend fire, with inspectors knocking on the door as recently as two weeks before the blaze.
With all the attention from police, child welfare authorities, building inspectors and others, some of those who saw what was going on at the underground artists’ colony say they figured time and again that authorities would shut it all down.
But they never did.
“It makes me so sad that all this has been there this whole long time,” said neighbor Phyllis Waukazoo. “This was an accident waiting to happen. That could have been prevented.”
Mayor Libby Schaaf deflected questions about whether more aggressive action by authorities could have prevented the tragedy at the cluttered, ramshackle building known as the Ghost Ship.
Most recently, Oakland city inspectors received complaints on Nov. 13 about the warehouse being remodeled into residences and on Nov. 14 about an “illegal interior building structure,” city records showed Tuesday.
City officials sent a violation notice for the first complaint and opened an investigation for the second one.
A building inspector who went to an Oakland warehouse on Nov. 17 after receiving a complaint of illegal interior construction left after being unable to get inside.
Schaaf said late Tuesday the inspector followed procedure and later sent a request to the owner to gain entry. She did not reveal the outcome of that request.
Under the Oakland city code, building officials and fire marshals need court permission to enter commercial lodgings if the owner or manager refuses access.
Building inspectors typically cannot force entry to a property unless there are pressing circumstances, Schaaf said.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and prosecutors said they are looking into the possibility of criminal charges.
Alameda County sheriff’s Sgt. J.D. Nelson said Tuesday night that of the 36 victims found, 35 have been identified and 20 of their families have been notified. Officials are still lacking any type of identity for one person.
Record searches and interviews by The Associated Press indicate that the couple who leased the warehouse and turned it into rented living spaces and artists’ studios, Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison, were already under scrutiny by several agencies.
Some of those agencies had been told or could have seen for themselves that the family of five and their dozens of artist tenants were living in a warehouse that had no permit to operate as a living space and allegedly had no proper kitchen, electricity, adequate fire exits or solid stairs.
Almena, 46, is on probation for receiving stolen property, an Airstream trailer he was accused of stealing and stashing at the warehouse. The terms of his probation allowed authorities to enter his home without a warrant, records show.
Child welfare workers had taken away the couple’s three children in mid-2015 but returned them by this past summer, despite the illegal conditions at the warehouse and the children being hungry, infested with lice and frequently truant, Micah Allison’s father and other acquaintances said.
Almena confirmed in a 2015 document that child welfare workers visited the warehouse at least twice.
Child welfare authorities refused to comment on the family, citing privacy laws.
In returning the children, the authorities set certain conditions, including that the youngsters be out of the warehouse during the many parties held there, according to those who knew the couple.
On the night of the fire, Allison and the three children had checked into an Oakland hotel, according to Almena. All of them survived. Almena said in a TV interview that he had little involvement in the party and had gone to the hotel as well.
Allison’s father, Michael Allison, said he is left wondering why authorities failed to take quicker, tougher action.
“This whole thing, the city giving them warning after warning after warning, strikes me as bizarre. It’s been going on for years,” he said. “I knew something was going to happen ... but not this.”
Under state and city law, commercial buildings must receive annual fire inspections. Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly refused to say whether fire officials had visited the warehouse before the blaze.
Zac Unger, vice president of the Oakland firefighters union, said the city has about one-third of the fire inspectors of other cities of comparable size.
“It’s a systematic underinvestment in the fire department and a roll of the dice, hoping they’ll get away with it,” he said.
Noel Gallo, a city councilman who lives a block away and recalled fruitless conversations with Almena over trash and other nuisances, said he will push for more building inspectors and fire marshals.
But Gallo noted the city has many occupied warehouses and has to be mindful of the “desperate” housing shortage in the San Francisco Bay area, where the tech boom has driven up prices and rents.
In an interview after the fire, Almena said police also had been in and out of the buildings for years, over thefts and other complaints from the people there.
“They would come in and they would walk through our space and they’d always say ‘Wow, what an amazing space,’” Almena told San Jose TV station KNTV.
A video reportedly recorded in October and acquired by NBC shows two police officers walking through the warehouse with a young man in handcuffs.
Oakland Police Department spokeswoman Officer Jonna Watson said police officers are not trained on zoning laws but pointed out they document every call they respond to.
“The Alameda County District Attorney’s office is the lead investigating agency and as the mayor has stated over the last five days, everything will be looked at,” she said.
Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper, Sudhin Thanawala and Olga R. Rodriguez contributed to this story.