OAKLAND (AP) — Awakened by screams of “fire,” Michael Jones bolted out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness Monday at the dilapidated Oakland apartment building he calls home, instinctively pounded on the doors of his elderly neighbors and ushered them to safety — walkers and all.
Jones, 43, then found Princess, the “house” pit bull, cowering in the backyard, and the two ran out the front door as glass shattered from the heat.
A few hours later, he and the dog stood across the street, staring at the smoldering wooden structure that housed some 80 low-income residents, many of whom complained that they had not heard alarms, felt sprinklers or found fire extinguishers as they fled the substandard living conditions.
Jones said a prayer of gratitude for surviving the fire that killed three people and hurt four others, including two children. One person remained missing.
Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Erik Logan said some people were hanging from windows and others were in fire escapes when firefighters arrived at the building.
The fire broke out in the rundown neighborhood nearly three months after a warehouse called the Ghost Ship caught fire and killed 36 people attending an unlicensed concert about five miles away.
The fires have raised questions about the use of some buildings in the city for residences amid a shortage of affordable housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“At least the rats are gone,” said Angela Taylor, 62, clutching her purse, the only possession she managed to get out of a room she paid $550 a month to live in. “It’s the wrong purse, but it’s better than nothing. A lady needs her purse.”
In 2010, Oakland allowed the owner of the 40-unit building that burned Monday to convert the structure into transitional housing for recovering drug addicts, people struggling with homelessness and others, records show.
Since then, it has been the subject of several building department citations and investigations. City records show building officials verified complaints filed by the nonprofit organization that rents most of the building about deferred maintenance.
The owner, Keith Kim, was sent a notice of violation on March 2 over complaints of large amounts of trash and debris, building materials and furniture behind the property.
The building department also has an open investigation into complaints of “no working heat throughout the building, electrical issues and a large pest infestation,” city records show.
The Oakland Fire Department did not respond Monday to a request for inspection records involving the building, Kim did not return telephone calls from The Associated Press.
Mayor Libby Schaaf viewed the building briefly Monday and in a statement later offered her sympathies to the families of those affected but didn’t address the complaints against the building.
City fire officials have been criticized for failing to inspect the Ghost Ship warehouse and the mayor conceded that city agencies need to improve communications after records showed police responding to a number of complaints there in the months before the Dec. 2 blaze.
The cause of the Ghost Ship fire is still under investigation and Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed announced she would retire May 2.
Days after the warehouse fire, the owner of the building that burned Monday sent an eviction notice to Urojas Community Center, which had leased the first two floors of the three-story building, said James Cook, an attorney for the center.
The center assists about 60 people with transitional housing and services, Cook said. He had complained to the city about clogged toilets and disgusting bathrooms, exposed wires and water an inch deep on the ground floor, he said.
“It’s like Ghost Ship, but worse,” Cook said.
Residents said the hallways were cluttered with trash and debris.
“There were no sprinklers or fire extinguishers,” said Curtis Robinson, 52, who had to leave his wheelchair behind in his first floor room in the scramble to escape.
Several residents said they discounted the initial commotion over the fire because the building and neighborhood are noisy. Loud arguments occur frequently, and some residents stayed up late, drinking and partying.
Kirsten Evans, 52, said she paid $1,100 a month for a small studio apartment without a kitchen. She said she moved in three years ago after she was evicted from her apartment of 20 years because her landlord wanted to raise her rent dramatically.
She said she woke up briefly Monday to take her medication and heard yelling and screaming. Then she heard windows popping, shattering from the heat and a skylight overhead shattering and glass falling outside her door.
As she fled, Evans said she trampled over broken glass as wires and light fixtures sparked red and white.
“I didn’t hear a fire alarm,” she said.