A pre-dawn blaze near Downtown Los Angeles early Monday partially gutted a hotel that has a history of serious fire and health violations, sending transients living inside scrambling for safety through flames and thick, black smoke.
The fire was the third in the past five months at the five-story Californian Hotel, which city officials say is a classic slum building where a changing cast of owners suck out profits, fail to make repairs and leave tenants in miserable conditions.
The blaze, which sent flames shooting into the darkened sky, was believed to have been started by squatters who lit small fires to stay warm, fire officials said. Four occupants were hurt in the blaze, including one person who injured his leg jumping from a window. The others suffered from smoke inhalation, officials said.
The blaze could have been disastrous had it started on the ground level and trapped occupants and firefighters on the upper floors, Los Angeles Fire Chief Donald O. Manning said.
“It was a potential killer fire,” Manning said.
The 200-room hotel had been cited for 30 building and safety violations by the Los Angeles Housing Slum Task Force, which targets owners of the city’s most dilapidated apartment complexes. Since July, city officials have been in court on several occasions in a futile effort to sort out the tangled ownership of the building. A number of people who officials believe own the property deny responsibility for maintaining the run-down structure.
“Everybody is blaming everyone else for the conditions of the building, and everyone is denying they own it,” said Deputy City Atty. Richard M. Bobb, who heads the multi-agency task force. “I have a very cynical belief that the Californian Hotel will be torn down at taxpayers’ expense, that there will be several lawsuits to determine who owns the building and that somebody will put a strip mall on the site and make a profit on the backs of the tenants who had to live in substandard conditions.”
Just two weeks ago, task force inspectors had reported to the city’s Building and Safety Department that transients were living in the hotel, Bobb said, but apparently no action was taken to remove them.
Building and Safety officials were unavailable for comment Monday.
Keeping track of squatters has become more difficult since the Northridge earthquake, which created more abandoned buildings than inspectors could monitor. The recent cold snap has worsened the problem, causing more people to flock to homeless shelters and abandoned buildings across the city.
Monday’s blaze was reported shortly after 5:15 a.m. and was extinguished about an hour later by 186 firefighters from 36 fire companies. By the time the first crews had arrived, flames were shooting about 30 feet above the roof, black smoke was pouring out the windows and trapped occupants were perched on window ledges, witnesses said.
“It was cooking real good,” said Firefighter Milton Urquilla, who was among the first to arrive.
“The smoke and flames were coming down the hallway toward me. I didn’t think I was going to make it,” said Travis Washington, 43, who was rescued by firefighters from the fourth floor, where the blaze is believed to have started. “Those firemen saved my ass, man.”
Investigators had not determined the exact cause of the blaze, but the chief said it appeared to have been started by squatters who lighted fires to stay warm. Manning noted that transients trying to keep warm started a blaze about two weeks ago in the hotel, located in the densely populated Westlake district just west of Downtown.
City officials met Monday to discuss demolishing the building at taxpayers’ expense. The old hotel, its once-elegant brick facade scuffed and faded, was shut down by city officials in July because of numerous health and safety violations ranging from missing fire extinguishers to rat and insect infestation. There also was significant structural damage caused by a suspected arson fire that swept through the building in late June.
City officials sealed the building’s entryways with plywood and metal bars. Monday, firefighters were forced to use specialized cutting tools to enter and battle the blaze.
But those precautions did little to stop the squatters, who said they ripped open a door in an alley on the side of the building just days after it was closed in July. The occupants said the hotel recently had about 150 occupants because of the weather.
“On every floor, there’s some type of little fire,” said occupant Robert Garcia, 36.
The Los Angeles city attorney’s office filed a 30-count misdemeanor complaint against the owners on July 14, two months after city building officials had identified the structure as a slum.
Although it was initially believed that the building could be repaired, by July conditions had deteriorated so that city officials’ top concern was simply getting the tenants out of an uninhabitable building, Bobb said.
The city attorney’s office subsequently amended its original complaint to charge the owners--in a 50-count addendum--with failing to pay relocation assistance to the tenants who were forced to leave.
But on three separate occasions, lawyers for the defendants--the suspected owners of the property--have obtained postponements from as many judges, despite the objections of city prosecutors.
“We have a trial set for Jan. 31, 1995. It’s very unusual that a case like this would take this long,” Bobb said Monday.
The city attorney’s office is seeking a party it can hold responsible for the costs of boarding up the building and monitoring it. But that has not been easy.
In April, 1993, the building was purchased by Dali Dale Inc., whose principal was Dale Lohrer, according to Bobb. Within six months, the building had been sold for $1 to Dora Ali, the wife of Sayed Ali, a Las Vegas resident.
On Jan. 10, Dali Dale Inc., now controlled by Dora Ali, filed for bankruptcy and shortly thereafter turned over control of the firm to William Gilstrap. “We don’t think any money changed hands in this transaction,” Bobb said.
Ali’s attorney, John Eardley, declined to comment Monday on the ownership issue. Attorneys for the others involved in the transactions were unavailable for comment.
According to Bobb, Gilstrap was identified as a possible suspect in an arson fire at the Ferraro Hotel that burned down in 1988. That Westlake hotel was owned at the time by Sayed Ali. The hotel property was later redeveloped as a strip mall.
On April 14, Gilstrap transferred title of the Californian Hotel to Josefa Lerner and Gregorio Groisman. Groisman is believed to be living in Brazil now, Bobb said.
The city attorney’s office has filed its complaint against Groisman, Gilstrap, Lerner, the Alis and Dali Dale Inc.
Lerner has told the city attorney that she was unaware that the property was deeded over to her, and the Alis say that when the slum housing violations occurred in May the property was actually controlled by Highland Federal Bank.
Both Groisman and Gilstrap are named in arrest warrants for failing to appear at any of the court hearings, Bobb said.
He said part of the inspection problem could be solved with additional resources. “If we had enough inspectors,” he said, “we could stop slums before they happen.”
Because of attrition, hiring freezes and budget cuts, there has been a 70% decrease in the number of fire prevention inspections since 1978, a city audit found last year. The City Council has proposed a $3-million measure to add 54 building and safety inspectors.
There are about 70,000 to 100,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. But there are only about 2,500 beds in private Skid Row shelters and 1,250 contracted through the Los Angeles Services Authority, a newly formed city-county agency that provides shelter.