Why the Ghost Ship 'slipped through the cracks' of Oakland inspectors despite repeated safety complaints

As investigators probed the cause of a warehouse fire that killed 36 people, Oakland city officials faced more scrutiny over their handling of complaints about the building in the years before the blaze.

Despite numerous complaints about conditions both inside and outside the warehouse, city officials have so far not produced any evidence that either fire or building code inspectors entered the building.

On Friday, one source inside Oakland city government told The Times the address of the warehouse was not even found on the fire marshal’s inspection system, prompting questions about how well that system was maintained.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said some of the firefighters who responded to the catastrophic fire the night of Dec. 2 knew the building was dangerous. But for reasons that remain unclear, their concerns and those of others in the community who complained about the so-called Ghost Ship didn’t prompt action, the source said.

City officials have been releasing inspection records related to the warehouse all week and expect that process to continue.

Officials revealed earlier this week that no building code enforcement inspector has been inside the warehouse in at least 30 years, despite the fact that the building and its adjoining lot had been the focus of nearly two dozen building code complaints or other city actions.

The fact that the warehouse was not on the fire inspection system is puzzling because the city Fire Prevention Bureau is required to conduct annual inspections of all commercial buildings and multifamily residences, according to city ordinance.

Some former residents described the warehouse as a cluttered “death trap” lacking fire sprinklers and filled with debris and exposed wires. Some said they made complaints to the city. People rented space in the building even though it was zoned only for warehouse use. The death toll from the fire was so high because the warehouse was hosting an unpermitted concert that night.

Experts said Oakland has a variety of questions to answer about how it handled the warehouse.

“There are legitimate issues here about why the city of Oakland didn’t use more resources to go into this property,” said Michael Colantuono, a municipal attorney and expert on code enforcement and planning.

Others said that Oakland is far from alone in struggling with code enforcement, especially at a time of rising property values that have pushed lower-income residents into substandard housing like the Ghost Ship.

Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said her department was still in the process of looking for records related to the warehouse.

“I can’t answer how that warehouse slipped through the cracks and that it bypassed our system — or how it bypassed the city’s system,” Reed told CNN in an interview. “But everybody is at the table right now trying to figure out what happened.”

The city’s Planning and Building Department investigated at least three of the complaints at the warehouse over the past three years. The complaints appear to assert that structures had been built inside without permits or that the property was being used as a residence. Most of the other complaints cited illegal parking and mounds of debris piled up on the sidewalk and in an adjoining vacant lot.

A building code inspector visited the warehouse 15 days before the fire to investigate complaints of trash piled outside and an “illegal interior building structure.”

But the inspector was unable to get inside, triggering questions about whether a more aggressive investigation would have identified the multiple building code violations inside the structure and possibly prevented the tragedy.

Questions about the competence of Oakland’s building inspection agency arose five years ago. An Alameda County Grand Jury in 2011 released a scathing report accusing the city’s building services division of mismanagement and having haphazard policies about conducting building inspections.

The grand jury found that agency was riddled with “poor management, lack of leadership, and ambiguous policies and procedures.”

On Friday, investigators ruled out a faulty refrigerator as the cause of last week’s fire.

Earlier in the week, officials had said the refrigerator and other appliances were being examined as possible causes. But Jill Snyder, a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said that electronics engineers had ruled out the refrigerator.

The cause remains under investigation, but Snyder said it’s possible a definitive cause might never be known. She also said there was no evidence the blaze was intentionally set.

Questions over the inspection records of the warehouse sparked mixed reactions in Oakland.

Some residents feared that the fire will lead to a crackdown on housing like the Ghost Ship, causing low-income residents to be evicted with nowhere to go.

“There’s an incredible lack of housing here," said Hannah da Cruz, 27, a fifth-generation Oakland resident. “It’s really pushing out our true community members.”

Cruz, a student working on her doctorate in clinical psychology who also works with traumatized children through art, said artists are increasingly being priced out of traditional housing and have little choice but to live in places like warehouses.

“It’s getting more and more expensive here, and you get less and less. It leads to people living in a place like that,” she said. 

“A huge culprit in this is the gentrification here. It's not just one inspector’s fault.”

Nancy Lopez, 40, lives in an apartment building off International Boulevard just two streets away from the Ghost Ship.

Lopez said she is concerned that the warehouse was not inspected more often.

“I know they’re understaffed; I know they’re underbudgeted,” Lopez said. “But you have to have priorities.”

Serna and Poston reported from Oakland; Winton and Rocha from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Paige St. John and Phil Willon in Oakland contributed to this report. 

ALSO

'We're all hurting': Mourners gather at Oakland museum to remember victims of Ghost Ship fire

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°