Nineteen people whose belongings were destroyed in a 2016 fire that burned two storage facilities in Newport Beach filed claims against the city this month alleging that officials ignored code violations at the property, including people sleeping in units and storing items that created a fire hazard.
The four-alarm blaze in the 800 block of Production Place was reported early Nov. 11. A firefighter and a man who was living in a storage unit were injured.
Storage tenants said keepsakes including photo albums, ancestry records dating to 1810, vintage collectibles, vehicles, boats, motorcycles and watercraft were destroyed in the fire.
Authorities said the fire was started by a man who was one of several people living in the units at the time of the blaze. Albert Eugene Faulk, 47, was arrested and charged with recklessly causing a fire to an inhabited structure, a felony. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in April to three years in state prison, according to Orange County Superior Court records.
Ty Hansen, a former tenant who filed a claim with the city, likened the blaze to the Ghost Ship fire, in which 36 people died in an illegally converted warehouse in Oakland in December.
"How is it, that over the course of 20 or so years, dozens if not hundreds of city of Newport Beach current and former employees ranging from firefighters to police officers, building inspectors to code enforcement officers, visited the site and failed in their duty to inspect and correct problems they are trained to detect?" Hansen said
The tenants allege the city's building, police, fire prevention and code enforcement departments allowed illegal activity to occur on the site, failed to recognize fire hazards stored in the units, such as cars filled with gasoline, lawn mowers and other combustible items, and ignored code enforcement violations, according to claims filed with the city May 3.
Each tenant is requesting damages of more than $25,000.
"Not only are we trying to recover our damages, but we think it's critical the city understands why this happened and it doesn't just get swept under the rug," Hansen said. "They have to address their lack of oversight."
The city said in a statement that it is not responsible for the damage caused by the fire, which authorities attributed to arson.
"Our thoughts are with those that lost property and those who were injured related to the fire, including a firefighter who was investigating this matter," the statement reads.
"The city has received several claims from those who have lost property. However, the city did not start the fire and the city is not liable for alleged criminal activity."
Police reports attached to the tenants' claims provide a glimpse at what occurred the morning of the fire.
Richard Newhouse told police that he was sleeping in his storage unit when he was awakened by what sounded like a woman screaming outside. When he stepped out of his unit, he saw a large plume of smoke coming from a nearby unit.
Another witness, identified in a police report as Jeremy Nadeau, told authorities that he was at a nearby towing lot when he heard screaming and saw smoke billowing from a storage structure.
Nadeau told authorities he saw a man rolling on the ground screaming with smoke seeping from his clothes. The man, who police later identified as Faulk, had burns on his back, arms, legs and back of his head, according to a police report.
"Nadeau said Albert was hysterical and went to run back toward the structure that was on fire," Officer Jonathan Sunshine wrote. "He said Albert stated there were four to six other people that squat at the location which was on fire."
Detectives' reports indicate that Faulk struggled with methamphetamine addiction and was depressed and possibly suicidal when the fire started.
Faulk had sent his daughter text messages "where he talks about never seeing her again," police investigator Brian Schlottach wrote in a report.