SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Already facing hardship from recent canceled and shortened crabbing seasons, more than two dozen crab fishermen sued the Port of San Francisco Wednesday for failing to prevent a fire that destroyed millions of dollars in fishing gear last May.
“Each one of us lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear in the fire,” plaintiff and long-time crabber John Mellor said in a statement Wednesday. “Most fishermen don’t make a lot of extra money each year, so we don’t have a pot of savings that can be dipped into when something like this happens. It’s a desperate situation.”
The lawsuit filed by 29 crabbers and fishing companies in San Francisco County Superior Court claims the city knowingly failed to prevent dangerous conditions that resulted in a four-alarm blaze at San Francisco’s Pier 45 on May 23.
More than 150 firefighters battled the blaze, which pushed a huge plume of orange smoke over the city’s waterfront. A historic World War II-era ship that landed in Normandy for the 1944 D-Day operation was spared in the fire, but crabbers who stored gear in a nearby shed were not as lucky. The fire caused an estimated $12 million in property damage, according to the city’s fire department.
The crabbers claim the city knew homeless people frequently trespassed in Shed C, where crabbers kept their gear, and that they regularly started camping and cooking fires in the shed. The shed was never locked and always had at least one door open, according to the complaint.
“The fact that unhoused people accessed Shed C had been known to the Port for many years, but, as the Port also knew, the number of unhoused people taking shelter in Shed C increased significantly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the 34-page complaint states.
The lawsuit further claims the city failed to maintain the shed’s antiquated electrical systems or install fire-safety and prevention equipment such as sprinklers, an updated ventilation system or a standpipe that could supply water to fire hoses in an emergency.
In 2017, the fire marshal told the port it needed to install that equipment or stop using the area immediately outside the shed for parking. The crabbers claim the city did not want to pay for those upgrades and kept letting people park there despite repeated warnings from the fire marshal as recently as March.
“The Port knew full well that it was required to install a sprinkler system and standpipe to match the fact that the Shed was actually being used as a parking facility,” the complaint states. “Despite that knowledge, it failed to install those required fire safety measures.”
The lawsuit also blames the city for allowing flammable and explosive materials, such as fuel and piles of wooden pallets, to be stored in the shed, creating the perfect conditions to exacerbate the spread of fire.
Additionally, the crabbers say the city failed to ensure adequate water supply was available at the site. Firefighters had to connect fire hoses to water sources several blocks away, according to the lawsuit.
“The Port had ample notice of the myriad fire risks in Shed C, and every opportunity to mitigate those risks,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Stuart Gross of Gross & Klein in San Francisco. “It did not do so, and San Francisco’s fishing community has suffered the consequences.”
The loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in crabbing gear followed several tough crabbing seasons shortened or cancelled due to ocean conditions and a push to prevent endangered whales from getting ensnared in crabbing gear.
In a statement Wednesday, San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Coté said the city sympathizes with crabbers and fishermen but also denies culpability for the fire.
“The fire was a tragedy, and our hearts go out to the crabbers, fishermen and others who suffered,” Coté said. “But we also have a duty to San Francisco taxpayers, and the city was not responsible for that fire.”