Despite a litany of complaints related to the Oakland warehouse known as the Ghost Ship that erupted in flames last Friday, killing 36 people, none of those complaints appears to have resulted in an interior inspection of the space by city officials, which some are blaming on confusion over the address given for complaints and the warehouse space.
ABC 7 learns that fact from Oakland's interim head of Planning and Building, Darin Ranelletti. "In terms of the planning and building inspector, our records didn't show that an inspector had been inside the building in 30 years," the news channel quotes Ranelletti. And though that detail may sound damning, it's not out of the ordinary. Building inspectors would only be summoned if applications for construction permits had been filed, and they weren't. That means, simply, that "we had no applications for permits in the past 30 years and there were no violations that were submitted for interior work within the main building that can be attributed to that street address," as Ranelletti reportedly said.
Complaints relating to illegal dumping of garbage outside the warehouse property at the address 1305 31st Avenue had been lodged consistently and for many years, and documents pertaining to these and other complaints were ordered yesterday to be released by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. Additional complaints specifically related to illegal residential construction went back to at least 2014, around when the founder of the Ghost Ship space, Derick Ion Almena, may have begun his overhaul of the site.
"Constructing house/structure without permits," was noted in a complaint from October 2014. That was again registered last month in a similar complaint. One crucial difference: The first complaint is for 1315 31st ave, and the recent one is for 1305 31st Ave.
Apparently, the 1305 address pertains to a vacant lot also owned by landlord Chor Ng, who has been an absence, rather than a presence, as this story unfolds. Therefore that lot, 1305, has been observed as the site of the illegal dumping, etc. Since the recent illegal building complaint was written up for 1305, the lot, inspectors weren't trying to access the warehouse at 1315. According to the Wall Street Journal, Ranelletti said that his inspector's "job is to look into the complaint... That complaint was registered for the vacant lot."
KQED found what they call the "only detailed note" on that inspection. “Complainant needs to provide access, cannot see if there is an illegal building from the sidewalk (property has a chain link fence in the front)," the inspector wrote. Ranelletti tells KQED that “When the inspector went out there, he confirmed the presence of blight,” and "was unable to get visual access into the lot to confirm if anyone was living there or if there there was any illegal construction on the lot.” Another, unrelated visit was scheduled for 2017, Ranelleti said.
But returning to the 2014 complaint that indicated illegal building at 1315, the address for the warehouse? An inspector didn't enter the space then, either, Ranelletti told the Journal, perhaps because he was denied entry.The complaint was marked as "non-actionable."
The Journal also asks if fire department inspectors may separately have visited the site: Mayor Schaaf says she is unaware, but has requested documents on that subject. However, last night, NBC Bay Area reported that the building's address wasn't even on the Oakland Fire Department's database of 12,000 commercial buildings in need of annual inspections. In fact, the fire department hadn't entered the warehouse for an inspection in a decade, NBC Bay Area learns.
Zac Unger, a leader of the Oakland firefighters' union who has been with the department for nearly 20 years, continues to blame the fire marshal for the situation. “We do the inspections that the fire marshal gives us,’’ he told NBC Bay Area. Previously Unger noted that the fire marshal position itself was open for three of the past four years. "if the Ghost Ship had been inspected, it likely would have been ordered closed until its fire hazards were fixed," Unger claimed.
In hindsight, one more complaint registered for 1315, the warehouse address, stands out. In September 2014, pallets and construction material were reported blocking the sidewalk. A notice of violation was sent by October of that year, before the non-actionable complaint of later that month. The one-way stairwell that led to the second floor of the Ghost Ship, where many were trapped during the fire, was constructed from wooden pallets, as were multiple makeshift walls in the space.