Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — 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 Thursday.
The East Bay Times reports Chor Ng, 62, filed for the license in 1995, writing on the form that she wanted to operate a “commercial rental.” She was up to date on annual business taxes, said Margaret O’Brien, Oakland’s revenue and tax administrator.
The revelation further highlights the lack of coordination and communication between city agencies responsible for registering and inspecting commercial buildings.
The warehouse owner has not responded to emails and calls made by The AP to phone numbers associated with her. The landlord’s daughter, Eva Ng, told The Los Angeles Times that the Ng family didn’t know people were living in the warehouse in violation of city zoning laws.
Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said Tuesday there are no city records showing her department receiving concerns about the building, which former residents, neighbors and others say was the subject of numerous calls to 911.
“We do not inspect buildings, we inspect businesses,” Reed said during a press conference.
The business license application is only the first step in opening a commercial enterprise.
If Ng had wanted to operate a legitimate business at the warehouse, either she or her tenants would have also needed to file paperwork for a fire department permit. A fire department permit would automatically notify the fire prevention bureau for an inspection.
Oakland spokeswoman Karen Boyd said the city is looking for ways to better coordinate the processes.
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 cluttered 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.
Investigators said that they still haven’t determined what started the fire, though they say it didn’t appear to be intentionally set. Instead, investigators have been focusing on electrical appliances plugged into the rear of the building where the fire started.
The electrical system is still part of the analysis of what sparked the fire, said Jill Snyder, the special agent in charge with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
A civil grand jury in 2014 report said 4,000 out of 11,000 buildings in Oakland were going without the yearly inspections and 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.