San Francisco

Millennium Odor Problem Could Point to Fire Risk, Experts Say

Unexplained odors inside the Millennium Tower units could be evidence of a potential fire safety risk to the 58-story sinking and tilting structure, experts tell NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit.

“It’s very alarming,” said John Damanin, a retired San Francisco fire captain who had been in charge of the city’s fire inspection detail.

He was referring to a report done late last year that details unsealed gaps around piping installed between the building’s 30th and 31st floor. Darmanin told us that the gaps could allow smoke and flames to spread from one floor to another.

“I knew I had a serious issue on my hands, I feel like the building has a serious issue,” said the unit’s owner, Paula Pretlow, after she heard Darmanin’s concerns.

Pretlow and several other residents report having long endured unexplained odors permeating their luxury units. Then, late last year, the building’s homeowner association commissioned consultants Allana, Buick and Bers to investigate Pretlow’s unit.

When the experts cut open several of her walls and set off smoke bombs from the unit below, they learned that smoke was getting in through gaps surrounding pipes and ducts running through holes in the concrete floors behind Pretlow’s walls.

Darmanin says that such openings should have been sealed with distinctive red, fire-resistant caulking, to make sure fires are isolated on the floor where they start.

While city inspectors are supposed to check some of those floor openings for proper seals during construction, he says that the builder is responsible for assuring that all gaps are properly protected against fire. He says that didn’t happen in Pretlow’s unit - citing the consultants’ findings.

“There was a failure, confirmed already, that it happened in one unit,” Darmanin said.

“Did someone have a bad day that day? Let’s hope….But if there are other units that are complaining of odors, and no one is investigating because they are afraid of what they might find out? I have a real problem with that if I’m a tenant or if I’m in the fire department.”

High rise fire safety expert Armin Wolski agreed with Darmanin’s opinion. Telling us that more should be done to assess the risk throughout the high-rise.

“We hope it that is not systematic, that’s why I would be concerned,” said Wolski, who advises high-prise designers on how to adhere to fire safety regulations.

While sprinklers should contain most high rise fires, he said, unsealed floor openings could lead to smoke damage in a small fire or help a small fire to move into the unit above.

“I wouldn’t live in fear, I wouldn’t move out,” he said, “but I would want the management of the building to look into this and see if this was a widespread issue that wasn’t checked during the process of construction.”

Meanwhile, something else mentioned in the expert’s report also raised a red flag for Darmanin. The report says that building engineers boosted air pressure inside some units to keep odors at bay. Doing that, Darmanin says, could undermine another fire safety feature – pressurized stairwells that are designed to keep smoke out for safe escape.

“So I would want to make sure that whatever they tweaked to solve one problem did not create another problem in the stairwells,” Darmanin said.

All this comes as Pretlow says she is still waiting for someone to fix her odor issue. The test crew sealed up her walls without filling the gaps with fire rated caulking. She tells us, since she first complained to the homeowner association, the “odor-transfer” issue has become part of the current legal battle and is mentioned in a homeowners lawsuit filed in March.

Neither the homeowner’s association nor the developer would comment for our story. Association lawyer Vision Winter cited “ongoing litigation and mediation” as a reason for not addressing the issue.

Millennium spokesman P.J. Johnston acknowledged a “small number” of odor complaints but said the homeowners association was dealing with them.

The city issued a report in January that declares the building safe. But the reports notes that in December – the same month Pretlow’s unit was tested – inspectors found unsealed gaps around pipes on three levels of the building basement. They ordered that those gaps be filled with fire rated caulking.

William Strawn, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Building Inspection, said city fire and building inspection officials did check floor openings during construction. Telling us that If they spotted any unsealed pipes, they would be fixed in the permit process.

But he acknowledged that city inspectors did find gaps around basement pipes that were not found during earlier inspections, and had recently ordered the problem remedied.

Stawn says no one in the building has ever lodged a complaint with the city about any improperly sealed openings or odors inside units. City building inspection officials have said that they don’t normally act unless they receive a complaint.

In light of Darmanin’s concerns, Pretlow wants the city to intervene and assure her that all the units in the building are checked.

“I’ve always been concerned,” she said, “and to have an expert confirm some of my fears, it’s scary, frankly.”

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