Photo by George Lipp

More than 30 residents from 15 units in the building on Mission and 22nd streets, where a fire in January claimed one life, severely injured another man, and displaced more than 60 residents, have retained legal counsel to file a suit against the building’s owner.

They intend to sue landlord Hawk Lou for failing to maintain key safety features of the building, said Steven McDonald, an attorney with the firm representing the tenants. Tenants of one additional unit have retained another firm and also intend to file suit separately. In addition, some 15 business tenants with offices on the first or second floors of the building have also said they plan to sue Lou.

McDonald cited  blocked fire exits, nonfunctional smoke detectors and a potentially faulty alarm system as part of their lawsuit. Though the firm is still gathering information, McDonald said they plan to file within the next 30 days.  Lou could not be reached for comment, but after the fire, he told Mission Local that the alarm in the hallway had been working. He did not respond to questions about a lack of smoke detectors.

That lack appeared to delay the response of tenants who were alerted to the fire by screams from neighbors, incoming sirens and in some cases, coming face to face with the flames and billowing smoke. Fire Department spokesperson Mindy Talmadge also remarked on the lack of alarms earlier this year.

“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,” Talmadge said shortly after the fire.

Fire officials have stated that the cause of the fire was an electrical fault inside a third-floor wall. In the days and weeks after the fire, tenants and lawyers alike have expressed skepticism about the fire department’s inspections and the lengthy process of obtaining a full report.

“But ultimately it’s the landlord’s responsibility” to maintain a safe building and comply with fire code, McDonald said. “The fire department doesn’t work for him to come there and tell him what he’s done wrong.”

In fact, Lou had been cited a few times by various city agencies, according to an investigation by Mission Local.

Public records show at least one complaint to the fire department in June 2010 that stated “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. A serious gas leak in the basement  prompted a visit from PG&Ein 2007.

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, and the property had comparatively few complaints overall for a 108-year-old building.  However, the department depends on tenants – many of whom are unaware of their rights and afraid of losing their apartments – to file complaints.

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