IT WAS near dusk. Andrew Pumphrey was holding his niece, Aurora Martos, in his arms as he started down the back stairs of a rambling four-unit Victorian on 11th Avenue in Oakland. They were going to the playhouse he had fixed up for her in the small yard below.
Suddenly, he said, the second-story landing made of decaying wood gave way.
Pumphrey's family said the owner, Samuel Cohen, did not repair the dilapidated staircase even though he told them he would. Pumphrey said he protected his 2-year-old niece by wrapping his 5-foot-10, 280-pound body around her as the two plummeted about 25 feet to the ground July 21.
Paramedics from the Oakland Fire Department found Pumphrey lying on the cement walkway underneath, immobilized his neck and spine with a collar and transported him to Highland Hospital, according to fire department spokeswoman Lt. Melinda Drayton.
The impact of the fall shattered his spine. Pumphrey, 22, most likely will regain the use of his arms but whether he will ever walk again is "up in the air," he said Friday from the intensive care unit at Highland Hospital.
The chances of Pumphrey regaining the use of his legs are slim, said attending Highland Hospital neurosurgeon Atul Patel.
"I'm just glad my niece is OK," Pumphrey said. "That's all that matters. She came out almost without a scratch."
His niece was taken to Children's Hospital Oakland for observation and is traumatized by the accident, her mother said.
Cohen, founder and president of Energy Solutions in Oakland, did not return multiple phone and e-mail messages. He bought the Victorian in the 2300 block of 11th Avenue in 2001, and owns two other buildings in Oakland and one in Berkeley. Records show no structural complaints about the properties.
Pumphrey said he knew the staircase wasn't in the best of shape. "But we thought it was at least functional. Apparently it was not."
No record is available to show how old the building is or when the staircase was built.
A residential building could go a century without an inspection, said senior Building Services inspector Augustin Borjon.
Building Services, the agency tasked with enforcing codes in rental units in Oakland, only does inspections when a complaint is made or a permit is requested for structural changes. The department lacks the staff and the regulatory mandate to inspect without cause, the interim director, Ray Derania, said.
In 2007, 37 inspectors were called out on 9,000 complaints from tenants, or for blighted property reports, and performed as many as 70,000 inspections, Derania said.
None of the residents filed a complaint with inspectors about the 11th Avenue staircase, which is constructed mostly of untreated wood rotting in places. And no permit was requested in recent years that would require an inspection of the stairs.
Splinters of wood and nails hang from the boards that were used for the landing Pumphrey crashed through.
His sister, Carissa Martos, said Cohen told her when her family moved in about a year ago that he was aware the three-story staircase was "more rickety than he would like" and that he would fix it.
"He did a lot of repairs," she said, "but not the stairs."
Building Services code enforcement inspector Robert Bernal visited the property July 22 and verified that the rear stairs and landing are "structural deficient/damaged with tenant and child having fallen through the landing recently."
"This structure has been found to have an extremely hazardous condition and is unsafe to occupy. Do not use rear exterior stairs!" reads a red warning sign placed by the city July 23 on the side of the stairwell, which also is the sole entrance to one of the side apartments.
Lisa Beatty, who occupies an elevated, first-floor unit, has no other way to get in and out of her apartment except by the condemned staircase. She discovered the tape the morning of July 23 when she tried to leave.
The communal laundry room has also been cordoned off by yellow caution tape.
A trio of renters who occupy the top floor attic apartment are using a stairwell connected to Martos' apartment because their only other access outside is by the condemned staircase.
Owners must comply with city and state laws in order to occupy a building, but Kim Ota, a researcher for the tenants rights group Just Cause Oakland, said Oakland enforces its structural codes unevenly.
If there is an emergency need and a building's condition could be harmful to someone's health, the city needs to step in, Ota said. She said sometimes renters only get assistance from Building Services if they push hard.
But Derania said frustration may arise from the process inspectors follow, which puts the onus on the property owner. Inspectors try to respond within five days to a complaint and within a day for permit requests, a goal they met 80 percent of the time last year, he said. Then they notify the owner, who will be fined if a reinspection shows the problems have not been corrected within a fixed time.
The severity of the problem reduces the time inspectors will respond but not the time it takes to go through the process. It will, however, reduce the amount of time owners have to make repairs.
The owner, Cohen, will have to repair the stairwell by Sept. 2. The city has also ordered him to cease using the attic as a habitable space until he has a permit.
Martos and her family likely will move from their apartment, because Pumphrey will not be able to access a two-story apartment if he is paralyzed.
"I just reacted and did what anyone would do in that situation," Pumphrey said. "If I was being a hero, being a hero sucks."
Reach Angela Woodall at 510-208-6413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some of the requirements landlords must meet under California law are:
Source: San Francisco Tenants Union
What you can do
If your building requires repairs, the first step is to request them in writing, and keep a copy of the letter. If that doesn't work, try calling the city code-compliance office (510-238-3381). They will send an inspector out within a few days, and issue a Notice of Violation to the landlord in a few weeks.
Make sure you get the inspector's name and phone number, and call back to get a copy of the Notice of Violation. If the problem has still not been solved in a few weeks, call the inspector and request a reinspection.
Source: Just Cause Oakland
What code says
"Roofs, floors, walls, foundations, and all other structural components of buildings and structures shall be capable of resisting any and all forces and loads to which they may be subjected." In addition, "All wood shall be protected against insect damage and decay as provided in the Oakland Building Code."
Source: Oakland Municipal Code