Coroner confirms fourth victim found dead in Oakland fire

Byby Lonni Rivera KGO logo
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Coroner confirms fourth victim found dead in Oakland fire
Four people are now confirmed dead from a fire that broke out in a three-story apartment building in Oakland Monday.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- The similarities between two deadly Oakland fires that occurred nearly four months apart are striking: Each involved a dangerously dilapidated building with an absentee landlord and renters desperate for affordable housing in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area.

The fire Monday at a building for recovering addicts and people who had been homeless occurred despite promises by city officials to crack down on substandard housing after three dozen partygoers died in December at a warehouse known as the Ghost Ship that had been illegally converted into live and work spaces for artists.

I-TEAM: Records show building complaints where at least 3 died in Oakland fire

"Both buildings were incredibly problematic and had a lot of legal issues," Mayor Libby Schaaf said Tuesday.

Four people died in the latest fire - just three days after city building inspectors found multiple fire code violations, including inoperable sprinklers and alarms, at the building that houses about 80 people.

Officials also noted a lack of fire extinguishers and overloaded electrical cords during the inspection prompted by a referral from firefighters who responded to an unspecified call in February. The owner was given 30 days to correct the problems.

The building, where many residents did not have their own kitchens, had been the target of 20 complaints to the city building department over the past 10 years. One involved a floor that was caving in because of badly leaking pipes. Others dealt with broken smoke detectors and no working heat in the building in the past year.

Residents described a filthy place where maintenance was neglected and trash piled up. But they said they had no choice about living there.

"It was a rough place to live," said 26-year-old Ruben Deon Mitchell Jr. "There was a lot of trash and noise."

Kirsten Evans, 52, said she paid $1,100 a month for a small studio without a kitchen. She moved in three years ago after she was evicted from an apartment where her landlord planned to dramatically raise her rent.

The building's owner, Keith Kim, and his attorney did not respond to repeated calls requesting comment.

Kim owns numerous properties in the San Francisco Bay Area but had largely turned management of the building that burned over to Urojas Community Center, run by Pastor Jasper Lowery.

Residents were caught in the middle of a dispute between Kim and the center after Kim sought to evict Urojas in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire. Lowery did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday about that issue.

The building is supposed to be inspected annually, but the city didn't provide any documents showing whether fire marshals had been there before Friday. The East Bay Times reported that officials appear to have inspected it in 2015 with an unspecified outcome.

The Ghost Ship warehouse that burned Dec. 2 was also the target of public safety warnings in the months before the fire.

City records show its residents relied on makeshift electrical hookups while visitors and neighbors lodged numerous complaints of unsafe conditions.

Records showed that city inspectors had knocked on the warehouse door a few times, but none had stepped inside for at least 30 years.

Days after the Ghost Ship fire, the mayor vowed to streamline communications to keep buildings such as the Ghost Ship from slipping through the cracks when problems are reported.

Schaaf told The Associated Press that those internal communications appear to have improved.

She said firefighters answering a call in February at the apartment building that later burned had reported possible problems, prompting an inspection on Friday that flagged numerous safety violations, including deficient sprinklers, alarms and smoke detectors.

RELATED: Oakland officials continue slow careful investigation after deadly fire

She said city officials lacked the authority to immediately shutter the apartments and were required to give the owner time to fix the problems.

Fire officials say they are still investigating the cause of both deadly fires.

Embattled Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed, whose department was criticized for failing to conduct annual inspections of the warehouse as required by law, previously announced she is retiring May 5.