Could Oak­land have pre­vented fire?

Build­ing had com­plaint his­tory

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY ELLEN KNICKMEYER AND PAUL ELIAS

OAK­LAND, CALIF. | City and state of­fi­cials fielded years of com­plaints about dan­ger­ous con­di­tions, drugs, ne­glected chil­dren, trash, thefts and squab­bles at the il­le­gally con­verted ware­house where 36 par­ty­go­ers were killed in a week­end fire, with in­spec­tors knock­ing on the door as re­cently as two weeks be­fore the blaze.

With all the at­ten­tion from po­lice, child wel­fare au­thor­i­ties, build­ing in­spec­tors and others, some of those who saw what was go­ing on at the un­der­ground artists’ colony say they fig­ured time and again that au­thor­i­ties would shut it all down. But they never did.

“It makes me so sad that all this has been there this whole long time,” said neigh­bor Phyl­lis Wauka­zoo. “This was an ac­ci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen that could have been pre­vented.”

Mayor Libby Schaaf de­flected questions about whether more ag­gres­sive ac­tion by au­thor­i­ties could have pre­vented the tragedy at the build­ing known as the Ghost Ship. The cause of the fire is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and prose­cu­tors said they are look­ing into the pos­si­bil­ity of crim­i­nal charges.

On Tues­day, sher­iff ’s Deputy Tya Modeste said the fam­i­lies of 26 of the vic­tims had been no­ti­fied. She said that an ad­di­tional nine bod­ies have been ten­ta­tively iden­ti­fied and that of­fi­cials have been un­able to iden­tify one vic­tim.

Record searches and in­ter­views by The As­so­ci­ated Press in­di­cate that the cou­ple who leased the ware­house and turned it into liv­ing spa­ces and artists’ stu­dios, Der­ick Ion Al­mena and Micah Al­li­son, al­ready were un­der scru­tiny by sev­eral agen­cies.

Some of those agen­cies had been told or could have seen for them­selves that the family of five and their dozens of artist tenants were liv­ing in a ware­house that had no per­mit to op­er­ate as a liv­ing space and al­legedly had no proper kitchen, elec­tric­ity, ad­e­quate fire ex­its or solid stairs.

Mr. Al­mena, 46, is on pro­ba­tion for re­ceiv­ing stolen prop­erty, an Airstream trailer he was ac­cused of steal­ing and stash­ing at the ware­house. The terms of his pro­ba­tion al­lowed au­thor­i­ties to en­ter his home to search with­out a war­rant, records show.

Child wel­fare work­ers had taken away the cou­ple’s three chil­dren in mid-2015 but re­turned them by this past sum­mer, de­spite the il­le­gal con­di­tions at the ware­house and the chil­dren be­ing hun­gry, in­fested with lice and fre­quently tru­ant, Micah Al­li­son’s fa­ther and other ac­quain­tances said.

Mr. Al­mena con­firmed in a 2015 doc­u­ment that child wel­fare work­ers vis­ited the ware­house at least twice.

Child wel­fare au­thor­i­ties re­fused to comment on the family, citing pri­vacy laws.

In re­turn­ing the chil­dren, the au­thor­i­ties set cer­tain con­di­tions, in­clud­ing that the young­sters be out of the ware­house dur­ing the many par­ties held there, ac­cord­ing to those who knew the cou­ple.

On the night of the fire, Ms. Al­li­son and the three chil­dren had checked into an Oak­land ho­tel, ac­cord­ing to Mr. Al­mena. All of them sur­vived. Mr. Al­mena said in a TV in­ter­view that he had lit­tle in­volve­ment in the party and had gone to the ho­tel as well.

Most re­cently, Oak­land city in­spec­tors re­ceived com­plaints on Nov. 13 about the ware­house be­ing re­mod­eled into res­i­dences and on Nov. 14 about an “il­le­gal in­te­rior build­ing struc­ture,” city records showed Tues­day.

City of­fi­cials sent a vi­o­la­tion no­tice for the first com­plaint and opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion for the sec­ond one.

Darin Ranel­letti, in­terim city build­ing chief, told re­porters an in­spec­tor went to the Ghost Ship on Nov. 17 to fol­low up on the com­plaint.

But the in­spec­tor was un­able to en­ter the build­ing or talk to oc­cu­pants and left, Mr. Ranel­liti said. City of­fi­cials would not give fur­ther de­tails.

Ms. Al­li­son’s fa­ther, Michael Al­li­son, said he is left won­der­ing why of­fi­cials failed to take quicker, tougher ac­tion.

“This whole thing, the city giv­ing them warn­ing af­ter warn­ing af­ter warn­ing, strikes me as bizarre. It’s been go­ing on for years,” he said. “I knew some­thing was go­ing to hap­pen … but not this.”

Un­der state and city law, com­mer­cial build­ings must re­ceive an­nual fire inspections. Sher­iff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly re­fused to say whether fire of­fi­cials had vis­ited the ware­house be­fore the blaze.

Zac Unger, vice pres­i­dent of the Oak­land fire­fight­ers union, said the city has about one-third of the fire in­spec­tors of other cities of com­pa­ra­ble size.

“It’s a sys­tem­atic un­der­in­vest­ment in the fire depart­ment and a roll of the dice hop­ing they’ll get away with it,” he said.

Noel Gallo, a city coun­cil­man who lives a block away and re­called fruit­less con­ver­sa­tions with Mr. Al­mena over trash and other nui­sances, said he will push for more build­ing in­spec­tors and fire mar­shals.

But Mr. Gallo noted the city has many oc­cu­pied ware­houses and has to be mind­ful of the “des­per­ate” hous­ing short­age in the San Fran­cisco Bay area, where the tech boom has driven up prices and rents.

In an in­ter­view af­ter the fire, Mr. Al­mena said po­lice also had been in and out of the build­ings for years over thefts and other com­plaints from the peo­ple there.

“They would come in and they would walk through our space, and they’d al­ways say, ‘Wow, what an amaz­ing space,’” Mr. Al­mena told San Jose TV sta­tion KNTV.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Oak­land con­verted ware­house that caught fire, killing 36 par­ty­go­ers had a long his­tory of com­plaints rang­ing from drug use to potential haz­ards.

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