The management of a Westlake District apartment building was cited last month for fire code violations similar to the ones blamed for the rapid spread of the suffocating fire that killed eight people, fire officials said Tuesday.
The violations included faulty smoke detectors and fire doors that had been propped--and even nailed--open, officials said.
The owners were ordered in April to place a 24-hour fire watch on the building until the defects were corrected. Officials said Tuesday it was unclear whether the building management had complied with those orders.
Open fire doors were cited by City Fire Chief Donald Manning as a main contributor to the loss of life in Monday's blaze. Manning said the fire code violations could result in criminal charges.
The chief said during a City Hall news conference that although the cause of the fire has yet to be determined, arson has not been ruled out and investigators are looking into reports that the building manager ordered two men out of the structure a few hours before the fire on suspicions they were selling drugs.
Records show that the building's owners have been cited for health, safety and fire violations dating to 1988, with additional problems reported in 1989, 1991, 1992 and this year.
Manning said fire door and alarm violations were found in the building at 330 S. Burlington Ave. as recently as April 10.
That was when firefighters were called to extinguish a small blaze in a vacant apartment on the second floor. Residents said the smoke alarms reacted erratically during that blaze, sounding too late or failing to go off. A citation was issued ordering the building management to correct the door and alarm violations and post a 24-hour fire watch.
The order required the owners to assign "responsibility for continuous patrol of the entire premises for the purpose of detecting fires and transmitting immediate alarm" to the Fire Department and building occupants until the violations were corrected.
The public areas of the building were to be patrolled a "minimum of once each half-hour." A log to maintain the time and completion of each patrol was to be maintained. And if the owners discontinued the fire watch, the Fire Department was to be notified.
But on Tuesday fire officials were unable to determine whether the citation was ever complied with. In addition, a computer malfunction has hampered efforts to recover building records covering the period before the April 10 citation, and earlier written records have been misplaced, said Battalion Chief Dean E. Cathey.
"We would like to get a historical overview of the building, but a computer glitch has prevented that and the hard copies have been misplaced," Cathey said.
No such fire watch was established at the complex, according to residents, including William Miranda, the former manager and Jose Antonio Ramirez, the former assistant manager. Miranda signed the Fire Department safety violation notice requiring the fire watch on April 10, but he said Tuesday he did not understand the document, which is written in English.
Chief Manning said that on April 12, when a small fire was set in a car parked in the basement of the building, fire inspectors noted that the previous violations had not been corrected. He said the order was reissued.
Nonetheless, Manning said, some of the fire doors were found wedged and nailed open after Monday's deadly blaze, and fire officials said the doors' failure to close accelerated the fire's spread.
Manning said that in addition to the fire doors, a stairwell and door leading to the roof had been improperly left open, creating a chimney effect in the building that rapidly drew the smoke and fire upward to the third floor.
"The question is who propped the doors open and if the owner/manager had knowledge of the violations," Manning said during an impromptu news conference after reporting his findings to the City Council. "I doubt if we can find who opened the doors, but we put (the management) on notice, so they should have had knowledge."
The property manager, Richard I. Kaufman, president of Yale Management Services in Woodland Hills, was informed repeatedly in recent months of the malfunctioning alarms and other problems in the complex, including roach and mouse infestations, according to the former building manager his former assistant.
Kaufman did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.
Sidney and Frances Kaufman, the general partners of the investment group that owns the apartment building, could not be reached for comment either at their condominium or their business addresses in the San Fernando Valley on Tuesday.
Capt. Steve Ruda, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said that although neither of last month's fires caused much damage, they had a troubling characteristic in common--both had been deliberately set.
And arson remained a possibility in Monday's lethal fire. Officials originally said the blaze killed nine but later reduced the figure to eight.
On Tuesday, 28 investigators from the city Fire Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms probed the second-floor debris for clues.
"We have no motive, (and) we don't know in fact if there was a crime," said Detective Tom King of the LAPD's arson investigation team. "But we're going on the worst-case scenario. . . . We assume there is a homicide."
LAFD arson investigator Terry DePack said there were rumors that two suspected drugs dealers, angry over being ordered to leave the building a few hours before the fire, might have returned seeking revenge.
"We're trying to run down those things," DePack said.
However, preliminary reports indicated that investigators had found no evidence of "accelerants"--highly flammable compounds, such as gasoline, that often are used by arsonists.
Battalion Chief Terry Manning said the fire apparently started on the second floor, where investigators found "a tremendous amount of heat and fire damage." The exact spot where the fire began has not been determined, and investigators still are unsure whether it was in an apartment or in a hallway.
Ruda attributed the fire's rapid spread in part to the crowded conditions at the apartment building, which was largely occupied by immigrants from Mexico and Central America. More people meant more clothing, furniture and other combustible materials crammed inside each apartment, he said.
In buildings such as the one that burned, he said, it is not uncommon to find people living in closets and infants sleeping in dresser drawers. "It's a socioeconomic thing," he said.
"They do it out of necessity. They don't have much of a choice," said Capt. Roy Prince, commander of Fire Station 15 in South-Central Los Angeles. He said he has seen as many an nine people living in a one-bedroom apartment.
Although alarm violations were noted in April's minor blazes, Terry Manning said that the alarms apparently sounded as Monday's fire broke out. But ironically, he said, that may have contributed to the death toll.
Terry Manning said that if people had stayed in their apartments, behind closed doors, they probably would have survived. Instead, he said, upon hearing the alarms, they tired to flee down hallways that filled rapidly with lethal smoke.
"It appears that everyone was trying to exit," he said. "They became disoriented. It takes only one breath to drop somebody, and the more you panic the more you breathe. The people who came out (of their apartments) were in many cases trapped."
The fire and smoke traveled up through the building, leaving the first floor largely unscathed. Three of the dead were found sprawled in a second-floor hallway. The bodies of five others were found near one another in a third-floor hallway.
The coroner's office reported eight deaths from the fire. They included Alejandria Roblero, 29, and three children living with her--William Verdugo, 9, Yadira Verdugo, 6, and Leiver Verdugo, 11. Also dead were Olga Leon, 32, and two children living with her--Jesus Camargo, 4, and Rosia Camargo, 7. The eighth victim was identified as Lancy Mateo, 15 months. The fetuses of Leon and of Rosalia Ruiz, who was almost nine months pregnant and was listed in critical condition Tuesday, also died.
Of more than 40 injured, five were listed in critical condition Tuesday at Los Angeles-area hospitals, according to a Red Cross spokeswoman.
The three-story, 69-unit apartment complex on Burlington Avenue was built in 1985 and sold to the Kaufmans for about $2.6 million, records show. The vast majority of the units are one-bedroom apartments.
The apartment complex came to the attention of city building inspectors in 1988, when the owners repeatedly neglected to correct plumbing, structural and electrical problems--including defective smoke detectors and fire doors.
A notice of substandard housing was issued against the building in May, 1989. It was lifted in February, 1990, after the owners made repairs.
The problems included an inoperative fire alarm system, some broken smoke detectors and defective fire doors, along with plumbing stoppages and broken window screens, building records show.
All fire doors are required to have magnetic devices to hold them open, providing ventilation. These devices are supposed to be wired to nearby smoke detectors that release the magnets, closing the doors in the case of fire.
"These magnetic devices hold the doors open but release them when there is smoke," LAFD senior inspector Ernie Spearman said. "Unfortunately, they get broken a lot, when kids swing on the doors and things like that."
City building inspectors found some of these protective devices were broken in 1988.
"We had a hard time getting them (the owners) to . . . correct the problems, but we finally did," said Robert Kline, principal investigator for the building department.
Since 1991, health inspectors have made repeated visits to the property, mostly in response to tenants' complaints. Records show the property was cited for broken ceilings, water damage and broken fixtures, as well as severe infestation of rats, cockroaches and fleas. As of April 20, health officials said all problems were corrected.
"It's not a bad building," said a senior health inspector who reviewed reports on the building. "There's been a lot of complaints because there's a lot of people living there."
On Tuesday afternoon, residents of the first and third floors of the building were allowed back in, a couple at a time, to collect a few personal belongings.
For most, it was things like cash, photographs, legal documents and personal identification. But for the Chavez-Salazar family, it was two pet parakeets that somehow survived the blaze.
Angel Chavez, the father of 6-year-old Debbie Chavez, who owns the parakeets, said the pets were left behind in Monday's desperate race from the home "because I was not thinking of birds, I was thinking about people."
Chavez said he had no plans to reoccupy the apartment, despite the fact that damage was limited to water from fire hoses that drenched the carpet and some of the furniture.
"We aren't going to stay," he said. "How are you going to live where the people died?"
The estimated 180 surviving residents, most of whom are being cared for at an evacuation center, probably will not be allowed to move back to the building for several days. In the meantime, Terry Manning said, "They've been bed, fed. We've taken good care of them."
Times staff writers Andrea Ford, Tracey Kaplan, Paul Lieberman and John L. Mitchell contributed to this story.
* REPORTER BECOMES RESCUER: A TV reporter helped save two lives. F2