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Oakland officials fielded multiple complaints about warehouse before deadly fire

There are growing calls for a full accounting of how Oakland city officials handled safety and health issues at a warehouse where at least 36 people died in a fire amid evidence that various city agencies fielded complaints over the last two years. 

“I think we have to take responsibility and certainly our staff members that had that task were not as responsive or assertive as necessary,” said Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo on Monday.

He and others said that the city had been aware of safety and fire hazards at the warehouse for more than two years. Neighbors and former residents have told The Times that they had contacted the city about trash and debris piled up outside the warehouse as well as their concerns about unsafe conditions there.

The owner of the building, which housed an artists’ collective and is in Gallo’s district, did not have any of the building permits or fire inspection that would have been required by the alterations inside, the councilman said.

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Responding to multiple complaints from neighboring businesses and residents, a city building inspector went to the warehouse on Nov. 17 to investigate but could not get access inside the building, Gallo and city officials said.

“The only question that is still outstanding for me, the administration has to tell us, well, what happened to the code inspector? Why did he just knock on the door and not pursue?” Gallo said Monday. “This thing has been going on for 2 1/2 years.”

Police were repeatedly called to the warehouse to address complaints, according to one former resident. Those reports could not be confirmed to The Times on Sunday by Oakland police.

After a December 2014 party, one partygoer notified the city Fire Department of unsafe conditions, and it was inspected, said Danielle Boudreaux, who spent time at the warehouse. She did not know the result. 

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Gallo said he personally went to the building with an Oakland Police Department captain because of complaints about refuse and other junk scattered outside the warehouse. Gallo said they did not go inside, however.

City records cited allegations of at least three code violations at the building this year. In one complaint, city inspectors said there was a complaint of an illegal building on the property as well as piles of trash. 

The building was permitted for use as a warehouse, not for housing. City officials said that a party or concert at the property would have required a permit, which had not been granted. They also said there was no evidence of fire sprinklers or alarms in the building.

The building was the site of a concert Friday night called the Golden Donna 100% Silk 2016 West Coast Tour.

Gallo said complaints were filed by the owner of a neighboring Wendy’s restaurant because people going to parties inside the warehouse often parked in the restaurant’s parking lot and also left their trash. A resident nearby also complained to the city, saying the pallets and other trash the building manager was throwing into an empty lot posed a fire hazard, Gallo said.

Shelley Mack, 58, said she paid $700 a month to live inside a trailer parked in the warehouse from November 2014 to February 2015.

She said she had been drawn to the space by a Craigslist ad that promised cheap living space. Once there, she and several tenants — between 10 and 20, depending on the day — shared a single bathroom. The building had no heat, and in November 2014 a transformer blew, cutting off power.

“There was no electricity, and it was freezing in there,” she said.

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Gas-powered generators were used to run small space heaters, and propane tanks placed indoors by the exits fueled other heaters, Mack said.

Partygoers described a rabbit warren of rooms crammed with belongings — pianos, organs, antique furniture, doors and half-finished sculptures.

“It was a tinderbox,” said Brooke Rollo, 30, who lives less than a mile from the scene and had gone to parties there.

Firefighters who responded to Friday’s three-alarm blaze described the interior as a labyrinth.

Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley said Monday that her office had launched an investigation, and the site is now a “potential crime scene.”

“It’s too early to speculate” about the charges,” she said. "Right now we’ve just started our investigation." 

O’Malley said her office is looking into whether there’s criminal liability attached to this fire and if so, against whom.  

She said the charges could include manslaughter or murder, but it was too early to know what the evidence would reveal. 

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O’Malley said her office would “leave no stone unturned." 

phil.willon@latimes.com

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

ALSO:

Photos show squalid conditions inside warehouse before deadly fire

Victims of the Oakland warehouse fire: Who they were

Oakland warehouse residents’ harrowing survival stories: ‘Oh my God, all of these people died in our home.’


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