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Criminal Charges May Be Filed in Fatal Fire : Tragedy: Building where eight died was in violation of fire code. It was cited often, and as recently as last month.

May 05, 1993|CLAIRE SPIEGEL and ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The management of a Westlake District apartment building was cited last month for fire code violations similar to the ones blamed for the rapid spread of the suffocating fire that killed eight people, fire officials said Tuesday.

The violations included faulty smoke detectors and fire doors that had been propped--and even nailed--open, officials said.

The owners were ordered in April to place a 24-hour fire watch on the building until the defects were corrected. Officials said Tuesday it was unclear whether the building management had complied with those orders.

Open fire doors were cited by City Fire Chief Donald Manning as a main contributor to the loss of life in Monday's blaze. Manning said the fire code violations could result in criminal charges.

The chief said during a City Hall news conference that although the cause of the fire has yet to be determined, arson has not been ruled out and investigators are looking into reports that the building manager ordered two men out of the structure a few hours before the fire on suspicions they were selling drugs.

Records show that the building's owners have been cited for health, safety and fire violations dating to 1988, with additional problems reported in 1989, 1991, 1992 and this year.

Manning said fire door and alarm violations were found in the building at 330 S. Burlington Ave. as recently as April 10.

That was when firefighters were called to extinguish a small blaze in a vacant apartment on the second floor. Residents said the smoke alarms reacted erratically during that blaze, sounding too late or failing to go off. A citation was issued ordering the building management to correct the door and alarm violations and post a 24-hour fire watch.

The order required the owners to assign "responsibility for continuous patrol of the entire premises for the purpose of detecting fires and transmitting immediate alarm" to the Fire Department and building occupants until the violations were corrected.

The public areas of the building were to be patrolled a "minimum of once each half-hour." A log to maintain the time and completion of each patrol was to be maintained. And if the owners discontinued the fire watch, the Fire Department was to be notified.

But on Tuesday fire officials were unable to determine whether the citation was ever complied with. In addition, a computer malfunction has hampered efforts to recover building records covering the period before the April 10 citation, and earlier written records have been misplaced, said Battalion Chief Dean E. Cathey.

"We would like to get a historical overview of the building, but a computer glitch has prevented that and the hard copies have been misplaced," Cathey said.

No such fire watch was established at the complex, according to residents, including William Miranda, the former manager and Jose Antonio Ramirez, the former assistant manager. Miranda signed the Fire Department safety violation notice requiring the fire watch on April 10, but he said Tuesday he did not understand the document, which is written in English.

Chief Manning said that on April 12, when a small fire was set in a car parked in the basement of the building, fire inspectors noted that the previous violations had not been corrected. He said the order was reissued.

Nonetheless, Manning said, some of the fire doors were found wedged and nailed open after Monday's deadly blaze, and fire officials said the doors' failure to close accelerated the fire's spread.

Manning said that in addition to the fire doors, a stairwell and door leading to the roof had been improperly left open, creating a chimney effect in the building that rapidly drew the smoke and fire upward to the third floor.

"The question is who propped the doors open and if the owner/manager had knowledge of the violations," Manning said during an impromptu news conference after reporting his findings to the City Council. "I doubt if we can find who opened the doors, but we put (the management) on notice, so they should have had knowledge."

The property manager, Richard I. Kaufman, president of Yale Management Services in Woodland Hills, was informed repeatedly in recent months of the malfunctioning alarms and other problems in the complex, including roach and mouse infestations, according to the former building manager his former assistant.

Kaufman did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Sidney and Frances Kaufman, the general partners of the investment group that owns the apartment building, could not be reached for comment either at their condominium or their business addresses in the San Fernando Valley on Tuesday.

Capt. Steve Ruda, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said that although neither of last month's fires caused much damage, they had a troubling characteristic in common--both had been deliberately set.

And arson remained a possibility in Monday's lethal fire. Officials originally said the blaze killed nine but later reduced the figure to eight.

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