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U.S. News

Some warehouse visitors saw warning signs in advance of Oakland fire

Oakland, Calif. (Reuters) - About six months before Friday’s conflagration that destroyed an Oakland warehouse and killed at least 33 people attending a party, builder Matt Hummel walked into the building and saw danger.

Firefighters work inside the burned warehouse following the fatal fire in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, U.S. December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Hummel, who has worked on several warehouse renovations in the San Francisco Bay Area, wandered through the creative maze of rooms and sculptures built by residents of the art and music collective known as the Ghost Ship and says he worried about what would happen in a fire.

Meandering corridors had no signs marking exit routes, and makeshift walls had been erected with highly flammable wooden pallets that would act as “chimneys” in a blaze, creating “a superhighway for fire.”

“They were so busy on what it looked like, they didn’t pay attention to how it worked,” he said.

The man who founded the cooperative and rented the warehouse, Derick Ion Almena, and his wife, Micah Allison, did not respond to emails, Facebook messages or phone calls from Reuters. The warehouse owner, Chor Ng, could not be reached for comment by phone or at her daughter’s home.

Police are investigating the cause of the Friday night fire.

In the days since the fire, Oakland city officials have said the building was zoned as warehouse space rather than residential property and at the time of the fire they were investigating a neighbor’s “complaints of blight and unpermitted interior construction at the building.”

Hummel and several other visitors to the warehouse in recent years told Reuters the problems had long been apparent, and some of them said Almena had been warned about problems.

Reuters was unable to independently verify these accounts as well as to determine if the landlord was aware of how the warehouse was being used.

Tammy Tasoff, 29, of San Francisco, said her friend Pete Wadsworth lived in the building, but worried about safety.

“He knew that a lot of these warehouses were not fire safe,” Tassof said. “This one in particular has a lot of junk everywhere. He felt that the people there were not necessarily as responsible as they should have been.”

He intended to move out, she said, but decided to stay on through the fall after Almena offered to let him remain in the building without paying rent for a time in exchange for work he performed at a festival Almena was involved with.

Wadsworth is among the missing.

‘NOT SAFE’

Danielle Boudreaux, an acquaintance of Almena for several years, said she got in touch with the family of Micah Allison in 2015, because she was concerned about the couple’s three children living in the ramshackle warehouse.

The call led eventually to the children being removed from their parents’ custody by child protection authorities, for reasons Reuters was unable to determine.

“I warned both Derick and Micah’s families that that building was not safe and those children were not safe,” she said. “Not only from fire, but the filth.”

Almena’s father-in-law, Michael Allison, said the three children spent time with him during the time their parents lost custody. He said one granddaughter expressed concerns about the clutter in her parents’ lives.

“She said my dad likes to collect a lot of junk, if he sees something on the side of the road we have to stop. She’d complain the whole house was full of junk.”

Almena, in a Facebook posting, blamed “AN ENTIRE COMMUNITY OF DEAR FRIENDS AND LOVED ONES” for the loss of his children and described counseling in preparation for their return.

“We are now finished with 3 months of anger management classes and parenting classes ... Currently enrolled in domestic violence and twice weekly sessions of 3 hours each psychological evaluation and therapy. I piss in a cup twice a week for nearly a year and have NEVER tested dirty.”

Reuters wasn’t immediately able to reach child protection officials.

The children were returned to their parents this year, Boudreaux said. A post on Almena’s Facebook page early Saturday after the fire said that the children and their mother had been in a hotel during the party. Reuters was unable to confirm these details.

Boudreaux said police contacted her on Saturday night asking if she knew Almena’s whereabouts, but she did not.

Almena triggered vitriol on social media after he mourned his personal loss after the fire, without mentioning lives lost.

“Everything I worked so hard for is gone” the post said. “It’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope .... to be standing now in poverty of self worth.”

Additional reporting by Rory Carroll and Peter Henderson in Oakland; Writing by Peter Henderson; Editing by Sue Horton, Robert Birsel

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