Weeks Later, Fatal Fire in West Oakland Still Hurts

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Inside the West Oakland building that was heavily damaged in the fire. (Courtesy of the Oakland Fire Department)

Oakland's deadliest fire in nearly three years continues to have an impact on the friends of the two artists who died in the blaze, dozens of displaced residents, and several businesses that have been forced to shut down for weeks.

Investigators believe the March 21 three-alarm blaze at 669 24th St. in West Oakland was probably caused accidentally, after one of the men found dead in the unit where the fire started fell asleep while smoking, said Oakland Deputy Fire Chief Darin White.

Fire officials want to know if one of the men was intoxicated. "We do believe it's possible that alcohol or other drugs could have played a part in the individuals' inability to find themselves able to remove themselves from the situation," White said in an interview.

The fire department got word of the blaze at around 3 a.m. but did not see smoke or fire when they arrived minutes later. However, as crews searched the two-story brick building, a smoke alarm began to sound and smoke started coming out the top of the door leading to Apartment D on the second floor, White said.

Firefighters broke into the unit and "encountered an apartment charged with black smoke all the way to the floor," White said. "Heavy flame was coming from the back of the apartment."

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The building  is connected to an adjacent structure at 674 23rd St. that houses two publishing firms and a printing company. They share a common wall, and the fire spread rapidly to the building next door. The two structures started out as one space -- a National Guard armory built in 1930 -- but they were eventually divided into live/work units.

The firefighters' aggressive fire attack helped save the second building, White said. But the blaze killed 27-year-old Davis Letona and 36-year-old Daniel "Moe" Thomas, roommates in Apartment D. It destroyed a large part of 669 24th St. and gutted several units on the second floor of 674 23rd St.

The fire marks the first time since June 2012 that Oakland experienced at least two fatalities in a fire, according to Cynthia Perkins, the Oakland Fire Department's chief of staff.

The cause of the blaze -- smoking -- is fairly common, and federal officials say it's the leading cause of fatal residential fires. According to the U.S. Fire Administration's latest report, 330 people throughout the country died in residential blazes caused by smoking in 2012.

In general, one out of every four people who dies in smoking-related fires is not the smoker who started the fire, according to a report by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit fire prevention advocacy organization.

Fire officials have not said which man in the unit where the blaze began was smoking before it started.

Letona, who perished in the fire, had moved into the apartment in the weeks before the blaze, according to Jonah Strauss, a tenant and recording engineer who lived and worked below the two men, as well as Alex Ramos, one of Letona's close friends.

Letona was a digital videographer. "His main passion was cinema," said Ramos, who organized an online fundraising campaign to pay for a recent memorial. Some of his work can be seen on his website, davislatona.wordpress.com.

Thomas, the second victim, had artwork featured in a number of exhibitions and collections in Oakland and San Francisco over the last six years, including the McLoughlin Gallery in Union Square.

According to the Alameda County Coroner's Office, Letona's cause of death was asphyxia and smoke inhalation. The cause of death for Thomas is under investigation pending toxicology tests.

In all, the fire displaced 34 residents. They are having a tough time finding housing, said Chuck Smuckler, a spokesman for the Red Cross in Alameda County, which has been coordinating aid for the displaced residents with officials at Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf's office and the Salvation Army.

"In the Bay Area we have such a problem with affordable housing," Smuckler said in an interview. "When people suddenly get displaced, finding replacement housing that is affordable and accessible  ... that's the key issue."

The Red Cross provided the residents who were turned out by the blaze with three nights free at local motels, but it is difficult for them to find long-term transitional housing or permanent places to live, Smuckler said.

The fire has also worsened what were already poor relations between the owner of the building and about a dozen of its residents, said Strauss in an interview.

Strauss said the landlord has done nothing to help him and the other tenants and has effectively asked the residents to give up returning to the building.

The owner/landlord is Kim Marienthal, a realtor at a Coldwell Banker residential brokerage firm in Berkeley. Marienthal said that he feels very sorry for the plight of his tenants. "But the process to rebuild after a disaster like this is slow and arduous," he said in an email.

He did not respond to complaints brought up by tenants. "I am advised by legal counsel not to discuss these matters," Marienthal said.

Strauss also said there were no sprinklers in the building, something fire and building officials as well as the landlord have yet to corroborate. There were reports that some of the smoke detectors were not working at the time of the fire, but several fire officials have said they have no evidence to suggest that an alarm was not operating properly.

Strauss' independent music recording business has been hit hard by the fire, and he has begun an online fundraising campaign at www.gofundme.com/shipwreckoakland.

Smoke and water used to battle the blaze damaged a well-known radical book publishing firm, AK Press, and two other businesses, 1984 Printing and Omnidawn, all in the adjacent structure on 23rd Street.

Thousands of AK Press's books are waterlogged, said Charles Weigl, one of the publisher's members, in a phone interview from the collective's office, which has been red-tagged.

"The road ahead is unclear except that I'm sure that we will persevere," Weigl said.

AK Press has insurance, but it's not certain how much the policy will cover damages from the fire. The publisher will probably not make back the money it needs to have the books it had in stock before the blaze, Weigl said.

The collective is one of the oldest continuously running anarchist presses in the country. "A lot of people first come to understand about anarchism and anti-state, communist literature through AK Press," Weigl said.

For years the worker-owned publisher has sent funds and free books to young radical bookstores to help them get started. Some of the people AK Press has helped over the years have been sending money to the collective. In the weeks after the fire, it has raised around $50,000 through an online campaign at gofundme.com/akpressfire.

"Some of that karma is coming back to us," Weigl said. The money AK Press has received is going to replenish its books, but also to help the building's residents as well as 1984 Printing and Omnidawn.

Both Weigl at AK Press and Amy Watson, who runs 1984, expressed frustration that the city red-tagged their businesses, forcing them to shut down until building officials deem their space safe.

They also emphasized that their building had above the normal level of fire safety systems in place. In fact, it had 180 smoke detectors, Watson and Weigl said.

1984 resumed printing just days ago, according to the online fundraising campaign for the independent shop, gofundme.com/1984printing, which has raised some $11,000.

"We're certainly not business as usual," Watson said of 1984. "But, we're moving forward."

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Omnidawn, a poetry publisher, experienced very minor water damage, according to its manager, Ken Keegan. The business lost only about two dozen water-damaged books.