OAKLAND, Calif. — The owner of an Oakland warehouse where 36 people died in a fire earlier this month had a business license for more than two decades, but firefighters charged with inspecting city businesses never reviewed the building, city officials confirmed.
Oakland spokeswoman Karen Boyd said Friday that Chor Ng, 62, holds a current license with the city and has paid all business taxes.
The Easy Bay Times was first to report Ng’s business license for the warehouse.
Ng’s license adds to the mounting evidence of apparent communication breakdowns among city officials regarding a cluttered warehouse illegally converted to living space and an entertainment venue that was the target of complaints by neighbors and former residents.
Fire investigators say they are still trying to determine a cause of the Dec. 2 fire, though say there are no indications of arson. Investigators said they were focusing on electrical appliances plugged into the rear of the building where the fire started on the ground floor.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has launched a criminal investigation that she says could lead to a wide range of charges against the landlord, tenants and others, including murder.
The city has no record of fire and building inspectors ever setting foot in the building that neighbors, former residents and others say they complained to authorities about safety, noise and trash.
Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said Tuesday that the warehouse was not in her department’s database of businesses to routinely inspect, apparently because the owner didn’t apply for the type of permits that would prompt a fire inspection.
Reed said late Friday that a business license alone doesn’t always prompt an inspection because such a license could be issued for a home business, a booth in a hair salon or other enterprises not requiring routine inspections.
Instead, the owner or operator of the warehouse would have had to apply for a permit to operate as a “cabaret” or for any type of “change of occupancy” plans to prompt a fire inspection, Reed said.
The chief said the department also conducts “block-by-block” inspections where firefighters walk the streets near their stations looking for businesses that may need inspecting.
“They would look for indicators such as open doors, sign indicating open or closed, hours of operations, sandwich board advertising type of business,” Reed said in a prepared statement emailed by a spokeswoman.
A fire station is located less than two blocks from the warehouse, but the chief said Tuesday that the department considered the warehouse a vacant building.
Neither the owner or operator ever applied for special permits and there were no signs outside the building, Reed said.
“We do not inspect buildings, we inspect businesses,” Reed said during a Tuesday press conference. “There were no indications this was an active business.”
Reed didn’t return phone calls or respond to an email inquiry Friday.
Mayor Libby Schaaf says she has ordered city officials to improve communications between city departments. City Manager Sabrina Landreth said officials are gathering and reviewing police responses to the warehouse in the months before the fire and plan to release them publicly.
Ng, the warehouse owner, has not responded to emails, calls and visits made by The Associated Press since Dec. 3. She didn’t respond to emails and phone calls Friday.
The landlord’s daughter, Eva Ng, told The Los Angeles Times earlier this month that the Ng family didn’t know people were living in the warehouse in violation of city zoning laws.
The deadliest structure fire in the U.S. in more than a decade broke out during a Dec. 2 late-night dance party in the warehouse. The building had been converted to art studios and illegal living spaces, and former denizens said it was a death trap of piled wood, furniture, snaking electrical cords and only two exits
A civil grand jury report in 2014 said 4,000 out of 11,000 buildings in Oakland were going without the yearly inspections. It concluded the city’s website inaccurately implied all commercial buildings received annual inspections.
The department agreed with the finding. It said an annual inspection for each commercial business was a goal but emergency responses and staffing made that more difficult.