Trouble in Oakland

For weeks after the devastating fire that killed 36 people at an Oakland warehouse in December, officials dodged questions about whether city agencies had been aware that the structure was illegally occupied.

On Wednesday, the city released 600 pages of public records showing that the authorities were well aware of the warehouse and the activities inside. The documents — which were made available after requests by a number of publications, including The New York Times — detail dozens of visits and inspections by the police, firefighters and other city employees in the months and years before the fire.

The records show 39 code enforcement inspections at the warehouse and a neighboring vacant lot from 2004 to 2016. The Fire Department was called four times to the same addresses, and the Police Department responded to calls 19 times over the past decade. One police report from February 2015 described the warehouse as “illegally shared housing.”

Despite these citations, city officials did nothing to shut down the building.

Mike Madden, whose 23-year-old son, Griffin Madden, was killed in the fire, said the scores of visits to the warehouse by the authorities “validate the view that the fire was preventable.”

“This is another example of a very broken system within the city of Oakland,” he said. “Oakland has been given some tough punches over the decades, but that doesn’t excuse this. It just doesn’t.”

The fire at the warehouse, which was named the Ghost Ship by the artists who illegally resided inside, was the deadliest structural fire in the United States in more than a decade. All but one of the people killed in the fire on Dec. 2 were there to attend a concert held without a permit. Most of the victims were young people who were overcome by thick smoke and trapped on the second floor of the building when a treacherous, makeshift staircase collapsed.

Neighbors said loud parties were frequently held at the warehouse. A 2015 police report by Officer Hector Chavez described how he was flagged down late one Saturday evening to break up an “illegal cabaret” there. Officer Chavez wrote that the police ordered everyone out of the warehouse, but that no arrests were made or further action taken.

“I did not detain, handcuff or search anyone while on scene,” he wrote.

The 39 inspections by the city’s Building Department stemmed from violations that included abandoned vehicles, rats, and construction materials and trash left on the sidewalk.

The department is in charge of investigating complaints of unsafe building conditions and making sure that owners get their buildings up to code. The documents do not say how many inspectors entered the warehouse.

The city’s Fire Department in particular has come under criticism for not flagging the warehouse for violations, despite a city program that mandated the block-by-block inspection of businesses. An Oakland firehouse is less than 200 yards away from the warehouse.

After the blaze, details of the inspection program on the city’s website were altered, including the deletion of a passage that mandated annual inspections of all commercial buildings.

Oakland’s fire chief, Teresa Deloach Reed, has been on leave for the past several weeks, an absence that has not been explained to the Fire Department staff.

Dan Robertson, the president of Oakland’s firefighters’ union, which has been sharply critical of Chief Deloach Reed, said the unexplained leave followed a pattern of communication problems and mismanagement within the department.

“We didn’t get anything that said, ‘By the way, for the next three weeks the chief will be on leave,’” he said. “We knew she was out of town because she wasn’t showing up at meetings.”

Erica Terry Derryck, a spokeswoman for the city’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, said, “The city does not comment on the leave status of employees.”

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