Fire Chief: no record found of inspections at Ghost Ship

A thorough records check by the Oakland Fire Department has turned up no records of the department ever inspecting the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale district where 36 people were killed in a fire earlier this month, Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said today.

After the deadly Dec. 2 fire in the warehouse at 1315 31st Ave., the department scoured records dating back to 2004, including inspection reports from two different record keeping systems and dispatch reports to check for any calls for service. No records were found.

Deloach Reed made the disclosure at a news conference this morning to provide updates on the fire. She said by law, the department wasn’t required to inspect the property and would only have conducted an inspection if somehow alerted that there was an operational business inside or that people were living there.

The fire department did find one call for service for a small fire in the vacant lot next door, but Deloach Reed said that there was no indication that there was any inspection following that call. Inspectors also visited the auto body business next door but didn’t call attention to the Ghost Ship at that time either, she said.

Asked about reports that some of the responding firefighters were already aware the warehouse was a hazard, Deloach Reed said that those firefighters had only been interviewed on Monday and she couldn’t provide any information about that.

City records released since the fire show that the city’s planning and building department received several complaints about trash piling up in the vacant lot next door and on the sidewalk. Last month, an inspector went
to the Ghost Ship to investigate reports of an illegal interior building structure but was unable to gain access.

City Administrator Sabrina Landreth said today that the Police Department is still searching its records to find out if officers had responded to the warehouse. She said those records would be released publicly once available.

One of the solutions the city is examining in order to prevent a similar fire in the future is improving communication between city departments.

The city is also consulting with the National Fire Prevention Association, which has sent experts to advise on possible safety improvements, Landreth said. Similar steps led to improvements after the Oakland hills firestorm in 1991 that killed 25 people.

Since the Ghost Ship fire, city officials have learned that the warehouse had been converted into living space and a performance venue. The interior was crowded with pianos and other musical instruments, statues, ornate lamps and furniture. The performance space on the second floor was accessible only by a narrow wooden staircase.

By the time the people attending the electronic music concert there on the night of Dec. 2 were made aware of the fire, it was too late for them to escape.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been assisting the Oakland Fire Department with its investigation.

Investigators have been examining a potential electrical cause, but haven’t determined an official cause yet, ATF Special Agent Jill Snyder said today.

Investigators briefly looked into the possibility that a faulty refrigerator sparked the fire but have since ruled that out.

The final cause will be determined by the Oakland Fire Department and its report will inform the criminal investigation underway by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. Both Deloach Reed and District Attorney Nancy O’Malley declined today to give a timetable for the investigation’s conclusion.

The criminal investigation team, headed by Assistant District Attorney David Lim, is working as quickly as possible but not under a specific timeline, O’Malley said.

“We will not sacrifice the integrity of the investigation or the analysis to reach an end result before we are ready,” O’Malley said.

Meanwhile, the Oakland Fire Department is stepping up its effort to inspect other potential situations similar to the Ghost Ship and has been alerted to several other warehouse spaces where people might be illegally living, Deloach Reed said.

In one similar case, the department was made aware of hazardous conditions in live/work spaces at 1919 Market St. in West Oakland. After sending inspectors, the city ended up shutting the building down and all tenants were evicted. In other cases, however, she said that the city was able to work with the owner to bring the building up to code.

Area artists have expressed concerns that many living in similar situations will be evicted from their homes in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire. City officials have sought to allay those concerns but amid reports of evictions elsewhere, much of the city’s artist community remains anxious.

While the fire department is investigating complaints, Deloach Reed said its inspectors can’t inspect every building in Oakland and will only conduct an inspection given a good reason, such as a complaint, a firefighter or inspector noticing a potentially unsafe situation, at the request of the business or when mandated by state law.

The state requires the department to inspect numerous buildings annually, including schools, jails, health care facilities, high-rise buildings and residential buildings more than four stories tall, but aside from that leaves the schedule of inspections at the discretion of local agencies.

The city’s team of eight inspectors is already tasked with inspecting approximately 500 residential buildings, 300 schools, 520 places of assembly, 310 hospitals, jails or care facilities and 123 high-risebuildings each year, Deloach Reed said.

In addition, the city provides inspections for buildings that are changing from one purpose to another, such as turning a shop into a restaurant, or for businesses planning a special event.

Neither the owner of the Ghost Ship warehouse or the apparent master tenant, Derick Ion Almena, ever alerted the city that the building’s use was changing or that there would be any special events there, despite apparently holding large parties regularly.

After the fire gutted the warehouse, it took days to remove all of the bodies, identify them and alert their grieving families. The coroner’s bureau on Friday posted the final list of 36 names of the people who perished in the fire. It included artists, musicians, filmmakers, students and teachers from 17 to 61 years old.

Deloach Reed thanked the firefighters who responded, saying that the time they spent at the fire site “is very taxing, both physically and mentally. The work they performed was spectacular,” she said.

The American Red Cross is continuing to provide assistance to families of those killed in the fire, as well as to tenants in the warehouse left homeless and those injured. More than 100 Red Cross workers, mostly volunteers, have been working to provide service to those affected, Red Cross regional CEO Trevor Riggen said.

The Oakland A’s has asked the Red Cross for assistance in distributing the nearly $500,000 raised for the fire victims. Riggen said that all of those funds will be distributed to the families of victims and those with medical expenses.

Another fundraiser organized by San Francisco nonprofit Gray Area Foundation for the Arts has raised over $664,000 and is working with the mayor’s office, coroner’s bureau and Red Cross to distribute the funds.

Anyone affected by the fire should contact the Red Cross at (510) 595-4441. Grief counseling is available via the Alameda County Behavior Health Care Services at (800) 260-0094.

Witnesses should call the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office victim-witness assistance line at (510) 272-6180. Others with information should call the district attorney’s tip line at (877) 288-2882.

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