San Francisco firefighters respond to the March 11, 2014, fire at Fourth and China Basin streets. (KQED)
San Francisco firefighters respond to the March 11, 2014, fire at Fourth and China Basin streets. (KQED)

The subcontractor cited in connection with a five-alarm fire in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood earlier this year is disputing a Fire Department finding that its workers failed to keep a required watch in an area where they had been doing “hot work” — welding and grinding — before the blaze began.

The company says that a Fire Department investigator’s findings in the case arose from confusion or mistranslation when a Cantonese-speaking welder was interviewed by investigators the day after the March 11 blaze. The fire gutted a 172-unit apartment building under construction at Fourth and China Basin streets, near AT&T Park. Several firefighters suffered minor injuries in the blaze, which caused at least $40 million in damage.

The subcontractor, Petaluma-based T.C. Steel, is appealing a Fire Department citation and $1,000 fine issued last month. The company says it maintained a required 30-minute fire watch after its hot work was done and that its workers are highly trained in following fire safety rules at construction sites.

In issuing the citation and fine, the Fire Department relied on a report from department fire investigator Stephen Engler, which pointed to welding and grinding on the building’s top floor or roof as the possible cause of the blaze. Engler’s investigation cited accounts from two workers on the job who were quoted as saying they had left the work site just minutes after finishing hot work on the project’s roof for the day.

One of those workers, described in Engler’s report as W-9, a “Cantonese-speaking employee,” said he spent his last 25 minutes on the job on March 11 grinding pieces of steel that were to be welded into place the next day, and was at street level just five minutes later. A second worker, designated W-10 in Engler’s report, is described as an apprentice who was assigned to maintain the fire watch. He is quoted in the investigator’s account as saying he spent his final 15 to 20 minutes cutting and grinding steel parts. He, too, said he left the site within minutes of finishing the grinding job.

In its appeal, T.C. Steel says those findings are the result of confusion involving the account from W-9, whom the company identifies as a veteran welder named Jia Yan. The company says Jia Yan’s statements “should not be taken literally” because he speaks a different Chinese dialect from San Francisco police Officer Jason Hui, who interviewed him. The appeal also says that Jia Yan “is easily confused” about matters unrelated to welding “even when spoken to in a language he understands.” The appeal attributes the confusion to the fact “his education in reading and writing took place in China over 40 years ago.”

According to T.C. Steel, an employee identified as Juan Baros was the crew member designated to perform the fire watch. The company said Baros was trained to wait the standard 30 minutes and fulfilled fire code safety requirements the day of the fire. The company attached an affidavit from Baros that says, “When all hot work ended on March 11, 2014, I stayed on site at 1200 4th Street no less than 30 minutes to ensure that there was no danger of fire.”

T.C Steel emphasized in its appeal that it repeated the fire watch procedure every day of its work on the construction project. In any case, the company stated, it usually takes 30 minutes to pick up tools and equipment after a welding or grinding job is done. “It is unlikely and virtually impossible for T.C. Steel’s workers to leave the job site any sooner than 30 minutes after hot work is complete,” the appeal says.

Officials at the San Francisco City Controller’s Office said they received the appeal and a $1,000 check from T.C. Steel last Thursday. That money is not considered an official payment for the fine. When a fire citation is appealed, the company being fined must send in a check for the entire amount in order to hold a hearing. If the citation is dropped, T.C. Steel would get that money back.

City officials expect the hearing on the appeal to be held later this year.

The Mission Bay fire prompted the city’s fire marshal and Department of Building Inspection to warn construction crews about obeying safety rules. The two agencies published an information sheet weeks after the blaze, clarifying fire safety rules. “That was obviously the largest, most dangerous fire the city has seen in quite some time,” building inspection spokesman Bill Strawn told KQED. “We want the contractors and actual workers who are involved to pay very careful attention to what they are doing.”

The rules require crews, among other things, to designate a specific worker to keep an eye out for smoldering embers after work wraps up. Fire Department spokeswoman Lt. Mindy Talmadge said the devastation from the Mission Bay fire “shows (construction crews) what can happen and hopefully be a motivator to maintain the conditions of the permit.”

The “hot work” rules for construction jobs like welding and grinding that involve “high-temperature devices” are laid out in the International Building Code. Those same rules were adopted by California’s building code. They require crews to use insulating blankets, keep work areas free of “combustibles”, and maintain fire prevention protocols that can help workers detect and suppress any possible fires, like keeping an extinguisher nearby and maintaining fire watches.

Experts say it’s difficult for fire officials to inspect the majority of construction sites to ensure that those “hot work” rules are followed. In many cases, fire departments rely on the private sector to ensure crews are abiding by the safety codes, said David Rich, a principal at Reax Engineering, a Berkeley-based consulting firm made up of combustion and fire scientists, specializing in fire safety design and code consulting. “I think they need the construction crews and their supervisors to take responsibility for these procedures,” Rich said in an interview.

Rich said the updated information sheet on hot work issued by fire and building inspection officials to construction crews represents a new step taken by city officials to create a stronger fire safety system in San Francisco on the heels of the Mission Bay Fire.

“Big fires result in change,” Rich said. “They identified some areas that really needed explaining to the owners, developers and contractors and they wanted to be crystal-clear about this,” he said.

KQED’s Dan Brekke contributed to this report.

Author

Ted Goldberg

Ted Goldberg is the morning editor at KQED News. He has previously worked at CBS News and WCBS AM in New York as well as Bay City News and KCBS Radio in San Francisco. Reach him at @TedrickG or by email at tgoldberg@kqed.org.

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