Site of fatal fire had received 9 code violations

Times Staff Writers

The Long Beach apartment complex where two people died in a fire last week was cited in September for nine code violations, including maintenance or operational problems with its alarm system, basement sprinklers and fire extinguishers, according to records and fire officials.

A day after Friday's fire, similar violations were found in a section of the three-story, 320-unit Paradise Garden complex that was untouched by the blaze, according to Long Beach Fire Department records.

The building in the 6400 block of Atlantic Avenue had been cited after a Sept. 12 inspection, records show. The violations were in the structure's 158-unit north building, where the fire erupted.

Fire officials said it was unclear whether the code violations had any bearing on the blaze. They said a follow-up inspection had been scheduled for October, but because it was never conducted, there is no way to officially determine whether any corrective action was taken.

"They had outstanding fire code issues," Deputy Fire Chief Hank Teran said. "We're gathering all of our information and looking at all of the reports."

Dan Wayne, an owner and manager of the complex, said he had been working with fire officials over the last three months to correct problems and that the building was "up to fire standard" at the time of the blaze. Wayne said he believed his contractor had corrected the majority of the code violations as of Dec. 5 and that he was trying to schedule a meeting with fire officials to sign off on the repairs.

"I don't know of any code violations in existence at the moment this fire started," he said.

But Teran said he had no record of a call by the building's owner seeking a new inspection. He said that the complex had been under a mandated fire watch, which required 24-hour security patrol provided by the management to ensure safety.

Fire Department spokesman Chris Milburn said the investigation would cover all aspects of the building's fire prevention system.

"It appears the alarms were functioning property, based on what witnesses are telling us and the fact that when we showed up there was an audible alarm," Milburn said.

Residents of the north building also said they had heard the fire alarm but were uncertain about the danger.

"I heard the fire alarm go off, but I've heard it going off and on before," said Ahmet Tatlilioglu, 23, who was treated at a local hospital for smoke inhalation. "The first thing that came to my mind was it was malfunctioning again."

Killed in the fire were Akhilesh and Nisha "Savitaji" Srivastava of India, who were staying with their son. Their bodies were found in the third-floor hallway near a stairway exit. Twenty-six people were injured in the fire, including eight firefighters.

The stovetop cooking fire erupted about 4 p.m. in a first-floor apartment and quickly spread to the second and third floors through the building's ventilation system, displacing 256 residents. The building was found to contain asbestos.

The structure, built in 1966, is not equipped with the automated sprinklers that are mandatory in most newly constructed multiple-family dwellings, fire prevention officials said.

Since 1974, California has required new apartment buildings larger than 5,000 square feet or with three or more stories to include automated sprinklers. In 2001, the law tightened to include residential buildings with five or more units.

But the majority of residential dwellings remain without automated sprinklers, which are credited with helping to dramatically reduce fire fatalities in the United States over the last several years.

Sprinklers installed in an apartment building would probably contain a fire to its point of origin, Long Beach Fire Chief Dave Ellis said. Paradise Garden's sprinkler system was confined to the underground garage area.

State laws mandate that older residential buildings be retrofitted with sprinklers only during substantial renovations. Dwellings built prior to 1974 are required to comply only with the building standards in effect at the time of construction.

More than five dozen California municipalities, including San Clemente, Lincoln and Redondo Beach, have adopted tougher standards that go well beyond the state's, requiring all new construction -- even single-family homes -- to include sprinklers, which can cost as little as $1 per square foot.

Deadly fires tend to spur tougher prevention measures.

Los Angeles toughened its regulations regarding high-rise buildings after 24 people died in a 1982 arson at the four-story Dorothy Mae apartment building on Sunset Boulevard near downtown. The city required sprinkler systems in the hallways and doors of residential buildings constructed before 1943 if they had a central hallway design.

After a 1988 fire at the First Interstate Bank downtown killed one person, the city required all existing commercial high-rises to upgrade their fire prevention equipment to include sprinklers.

But the Los Angeles City Council has rejected proposals backed by firefighters that would require sprinklers to be retrofitted in all residential high-rises for cost reasons. As a result, most high-rise residential buildings in the city remain without fire sprinklers.

Officials at the American Fire Sprinkler Assn. trade group said retrofitting costs vary widely -- a ballpark figure of $5 a square foot can double or triple if asbestos is found in the building, as is the case at Paradise Garden.

In the late 1980s, Long Beach city and fire officials pushed to require older buildings of three or more stories to install sprinklers, but shelved the plan after concerns about costs voiced by apartment owners and trade groups.

Ellis, the fire chief, said the department had been studying the sprinkler issue before Friday's fire and installing them is "something that needs to be seriously looked at." A significant number of the city's 8,100 multifamily units were built before 1974 and don't have sprinklers.

"You maybe spend more dollars on the site, but if you are going to protect your family or your home, it's the right thing to do," Ellis said.

The leading cause of residential fires is cooking-related, according to fire experts, though the top cause of fatal fires is smoking in bed.

Residents of some older buildings now worry about their vulnerability. The Paradise Garden complex's south building is again under a fire watch.

"It could have happened in either building," said south building resident Diana Aguirre, 20. "It could be me living somewhere else now, so it's actually really, really scary."

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