A West Oakland building fire has killed four people, just months after the devastating Ghost Ship fire in the same city killed 36. Fire officials had cited the building involved in the West Oakland fire as having serious code violations, but action didn’t come quickly enough for the four people who lost their lives. As critics point to inadequate oversight of slumlords and advocates try to help those harmed by the fire, those affected are left to put their lives together after enduring a tragic turn of events that was, by all accounts, preventable.
West Oakland Building Fire Started by Candle
Officials told reporters that a burning candle was to blame for the West Oakland building fire in the early hours of March 27, 2017, at 2551 San Pablo Ave. Although the candle started the blaze, however, it was likely helped by sprinklers and alarms that didn’t work properly. Only three days before the blaze gutted the building, city building inspectors reported a lack of fire extinguishers, overloaded electrical cords, inoperable sprinklers, and broken fire alarms among the eight violations.
In 2010, the owner of the building had reportedly been permitted to convert the building into transitional housing for people recovering from addiction or dealing with homelessness. A non-profit group that rented most of the building had made repeated complaints to city officials about a lack of proper maintenance at the site, and property owner Keith Kim was sent a notice of violation in early March regarding trash and debris behind the property.
Other complaints made about the building included a lack of heat and electrical issues. It may have been those electrical issues that set in motion the events that led to the fire, according to one resident of the building.
“The guy’s lights went out and we gave him a big flashlight…But he went and did some candles. The candles fell over and so when the fire started, it started on like a blanket,” said Marcelio Harris, who told reporters he lived next to the unit where the fire started.
Residents Awoke to Sounds of Screams, Not Alarms
Michael Jones, another resident of the building, said he was awoken by screams from other residents. He helped some of his elderly neighbors out of the building, then rescued the house dog from the backyard. Kirsten Evans, who lived in the building for three years, woke up to take medication and heard screams. She told reporters she didn’t hear fire alarms as she escaped the building.
“I just heard screaming and breaking glass, sounds of wood breaking and explosions,” Evans said. “I looked at my window and it was all orange and yellow. I ran out of my apartment and it was all smoky and debris was all over the place.”
Rescue workers pulled 15 people from the building, four of whom were hospitalized with smoke inhalation.
Two of the four people who died have been identified by officials. They are 64-year-old Edwarn Anderson and 50-year-old Cassandra Robertson-Johnson. Officials have not released the names of the two others who died in the fire, but did say they were roommates.
Eighty People Displaced in Oakland Fire
More than 80 people were displaced by the fire, many of them with disabilities or special medical needs. Most also only escaped with the clothes they were wearing, and therefore have no identification or medical records. Church groups and advocacy organizations responded to the crisis, attempting to establish temporary housing for the displaced residents, but finding permanent housing for many of them will likely be a challenge.
“The population is already struggling,” said Reverend Raymond Lankford. “They were already in a no- and low-income housing environment.”
West Oakland Building Fire Follows Ghost Ship Fire
The West Oakland building fire happened almost four months after the Ghost Ship fire, a tragedy that took 36 lives in a run-down Oakland building. That fire occurred on December 2, 2016, during an underground dance party for around 100 people in Oakland’s Fruitvale District.
The Ghost Ship building had been turned into residential housing, although owners reportedly did not have the proper permits to do so, nor did they have the paperwork for special events like the dance show.
As with the structure involved in the West Oakland building fire, the Ghost Ship had been the subject of numerous complaints to Oakland officials, and there were reports the building did not have proper fire alarms or sprinklers.
Emails obtained by the East Bay Times suggest the owner of the Ghost Ship warehouse knew about the dangerous electrical wiring in the building, but failed to take action to repair it. Furthermore, the master tenant—who sublet the building—reportedly also knew about the electrical issues. No one, however, took the opportunity to make repairs.
Concerns Raised About Oakland Fire Inspections
With 40 deaths in four months linked to substandard housing, critics have called for Oakland to deal with dysfunction in its fire inspection and building code inspection processes.
“Both tragedies were preventable,” wrote the East Bay Times Editorial Board. “If only Oakland’s inspection systems had worked the way they should have. If only warning signs had been heeded and aggressively responded to.”
Among the concerns cited are that the fire department did not conduct annual inspections of the West Oakland building, despite being required by law to do so, and that city officials initially said no city workers had been in the Ghost Ship warehouse even though city records showed the building and its properties were visited by police 35 times from mid-2014 through to the December 2 tragedy.
For the families of people who died in the fires, news that the California Senate Governance and Finance Committee met to prevent similar tragedies might be a small comfort. Rules and regulations are only effective if they are enforced, and if the people who own and operate buildings like the Ghost Ship and the residence at San Pablo properly maintain their structures. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before another unsafe building is destroyed by fire or suffers a complete collapse, and more lives are taken with it.
Meanwhile, wrongful death lawsuits are being filed against those responsible for the Ghost Ship fire, alleging the people who owned and operated the building did so negligently and carelessly, allowing the devastating fire to occur.