Disclosure: Mission Local was a commercial tenant for a year and half at the building discussed in this article.
For many of the 65 residents who escaped the four-alarm fire that ripped through their homes at 22nd and Mission last week, the terrifying blaze seemed to come without warning. Suddenly, smoke, flames and screams filled the quiet hallways of their 108-year-old building.
Many in the building report that they heard no alarm ring and no interior smoke detectors went off. In the case of smoke detectors, several tenants report, there were never any present in their apartments.
The California Health and Safety Code states that a smoke detector be installed in “each dwelling intended for human occupancy.” It goes on to define a “dwelling unit” to include “dwelling unit of a multiple-unit dwelling complex.” The code also states that it is the building owner’s responsibility to test and maintain.
The owner Hawk Lou, who was often around the building, has provided documentation indicating that the building had working emergency systems and had passed various inspections, though he wouldn’t comment specifically on smoke detectors. One of the building’s alarm had gone off at least once before in the summer of 2014. No one, however, heard it on the night of the fire.
“We realized there was a fire because of the noise, a little girl yelling desperately” said Felipe Reyes, who had lived in the building for three years. “When we opened the door we saw everything burning.”
Jorge Gómez, who has lived in the building since 1996 at unit 223, described a similar scene. By the time he realized there was a fire, rescue crews were already inside the building.
Gómez, who lived in one of the few apartments with an alarm—one he had installed himself—said firefighters were already inside when he learned a fire was tearing through the third floor. “The alarms inside my apartment worked, but the ones outside didn’t,” he said.
In the case of one man, Mauricio Orellana, the lack of advance warning may have cost him his life. When firefighters found the 38-year-old in the small, closet-sized room he rented in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor, he had already died of cardiac arrest.
“The fact that so many people were trapped—at least seven on the fire escape and five trapped inside—indicates that there was no early warning,” said San Francisco Fire Department spokesperson Mindy Talmadge outside the charred building the day after the fire. Fire inspectors are still investigating the cause of the fire.
The dramatic, tragic scene has already begun to kick up a public conversation about fire safety. In addressing the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, District 9 Supervisor David Campos said he would be requesting a hearing to “review procedures and interdepartmental protocols for fire and building code inspections.”
“There are a number of questions that I have that I would like to be addressed at the hearing by the Fire Department, the Department of Building Inspection and the Department of Public Health,” said Campos. “We need to do whatever is necessary to prevent another tragic death from happening.”
Evidence of compliance
Hawk Lou, whose family has owned the building since 1990, shared a signed letter with Mission Local and other media outlets from fire marshall Michie Wong noting that the property passed a Fire Department inspection conducted in August 2014. He also shared a record of an alarm test conducted by Tom Jue and Company, a certified alarm testing company.
The alarms, which are required to be tested annually, passed inspection exactly a year prior to the fire. The certification would have expired at midnight the night of last week’s fire.
“As you can see from the fire marshal report and receipt, everything was maintained and in working condition,” Lou wrote to Mission Local in an email last week.
If the building was indeed compliant, it is unclear why the flames and smoke failed to trigger the alarm, and why many tenants said they had no smoke detectors inside their units.
Hector Quinteros, who lived in a studio in the building with his wife and three children, said that there had never been any smoke alarms in their unit. When asked why he had not installed one himself – as a few other tenants had done – he said, “We weren’t thinking that anything like this could happen.”
Marcela Cordova who lived on the third floor with her two young children and husband Wilfredo Gil, the building’s property manager who was out of town on the night of the fire, said, “I noticed there was a fire because I heard the sirens from the firetrucks.”
“I opened the door and there was smoke and it was pitch black and I couldn’t breathe or open my eyes so I slammed the door,” she said. “I went to the window and I couldn’t jump out the window because it had metal bars.”
Lou said that any bars in the apartments—put there to keep children from falling out—had a release latch. For whatever reason, sheer panic or a malfunctioning part, the bars on the window prevented Cordova from using them as an escape route that chaotic night.
Inspections and questions
Tony Caro, another third floor resident who works for a building management company elsewhere, said he had no idea how the building ever passed any inspection because the apartments don’t have smoke detectors.
Gil, the building’s property manager, tells a different story, saying that smoke detectors were “inside the apartments, but when people cook, the smoke sets them off and people removed them…I think they were six smoke detectors and about three emergency alarms.”
However, several residents say that they never saw any smoke detectors in the building’s units. When asked about the discrepancy between Gil’s account and the accounts of many tenants, Caro said it was possible the inspectors only went into Gil’s place, which was in better shape than others.
Talmadge said the inspection conducted by a local engine in August would have “done a walk through in which they look for blocked exits, and to make sure the alarm system had a current certificate.”
Checking for smoke detectors is also included in the inspection, Talmadge said, but fire crews “don’t go into everyone’s room, they check in general, just to see that they’re mounted somewhere on the wall.”
Talmadge said requirements for the number and location of smoke detectors varies depending on many factors, but “definitely if it’s an apartment, they at least need to be in hallway outside of the sleeping areas.”
William Strawn, spokesperson for the Department of Building Inspection, provided the building inspection department’s maintenance checklist for property owners of multi-unit apartments. It requires properties owners to check in all residential occupancies “to confirm that all required smoke detectors are installed and fully operational in all sleeping or guest rooms, and at the top of every public stairway, and on every third floor below.”
Like the fire department, Strawn said the building department only goes into individual units “when invited.” Its inspection consists of checking exit routes, the functionality of fire escapes, and determining if certificate are current on alarm systems and fire extinguishers only in a building’s common areas. It’s up to the landlord to maintain smoke detectors within units.
Warning signs, other building issues
Public records show at least one complaint was filed with the fire department in June 2010 about issues with the building, stating “alarm system doesn’t work, and no fire extinguishers visible.” Records show inspectors came to the property multiple times that summer but were unable to enter the building.
Strawn said that this complaint also triggered inspectors to visit the building in October 2010 and found that the fire extinguishers needed to be recharged. Once Lou responded to this violation, the Department of Building Inspection considered the property to be in compliance with code.
“We like inspections to happen in roughly a three to five year period,” said Strawn. Given this time frame, the building would have been due for another walk through sometime in the next year.
Lou would not comment on the smoke detectors, but regarding the building’s emergency alarms, he said they were present and had no issue. Mission Local can attest that during our time in the building they did go off at least once during the summer of 2014.
“I want to emphasize the last time I walked by the alarm system panel, there were no warning lights on to say it was malfunctioning,” said Lou.
From our own experience with Lou, he was a fairly consistent presence in the building. Though sometimes slow to respond, he was a far from an absentee owner.
Built in 1907, the building was too old to be required to have sprinklers. It went through no major upgrades to trigger the required installation of such a system.
By all accounts, the 65 residents who lived in one of the third floor’s 17 units or the one residential unit on the second floor, lived in cramped, intimate quarters. In some cases, there were multiple families per unit or a family of five living in a small studio.
Of the overcrowding, Hawk said he had no control. “The condition of overcrowding is not what I can control,” he wrote in an e-mail. “ I know tenants live in the apartments for a long time, raising their families with children, and sometimes they have friends or family visit.”
In the years that he owned the building, there were other complaints. A serious gas leak in the basement in 2007 prompted a visit from PG&E. The Department of Building Inspection received complaints filed by staffers at the Planning Department and Department of Public Health about water leakage, exposed wiring, and possible illegal construction. All of them were abated after a few months.
Despite these issues—most originating from public employees and not tenants—there were surprisingly few complaints for a 108-year-old building.
“This is complaint driven process for the Fire Department and for the Department of Building Inspection,” said Strawn. “If somebody is living in building like that with problems, they need to call the building department.”
In a city filled with aging housing, the building at 22nd and Mission is not an uncommon one. In fact, it’s actually one of several buildings owned by Lou himself.
How do Lou’s other buildings compare with the questionably maintained conditions at 22nd and Mission? Why weren’t more of his tenants willing to approach the city with their building’s apparent issues?
We’ll try to answer these questions, and more, in the second part of our story to be published next week.