2016 Oakland warehouse fire
|Date||December 2, 2016|
|Time||11:20 p.m. (PST)|
|Location||1305 31st Avenue, Oakland, California, U.S.|
On December 2, 2016, at approximately 11:20 p.m. PST, a fire broke out in a warehouse, known as Ghost Ship, that had been converted into an artist collective, including dwelling units, in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California. At the time of the fire, the warehouse was hosting a concert featuring artists from the house music record label 100% Silk. Residential and entertainment uses were forbidden under the warehouse's permits at the time of the fire.
A total of 36 people were killed in the fire, the deadliest in the history of Oakland. It was also the deadliest building fire in the United States since The Station nightclub fire in 2003, the deadliest in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the deadliest mass-casualty event in Oakland since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
The Alameda County District Attorney's office launched an investigation into the causes of the fire. In March 2017, emails from 2014 were reported to have described serious electrical problems in the building. On June 5, 2017, two Ghost Ship proprietors, Derek Almena and Max Harris, were arrested and charged with felony involuntary manslaughter in connection with the fire. On July 3, 2018, both pleaded no contest to thirty-six counts of involuntary manslaughter in a plea agreement with prosecutors. On August 10, 2018 the judge overseeing the case threw out the plea deals and the pair will now face trial where they could get life imprisonment, if convicted by a jury.
Fire investigation and prosecution
- Cash Askew, age 22
- Em B (Em Bohlka), 33
- Jonathan Bernbaum, 34
- Barrett Clark, 35
- David Cline, 24
- Micah Danemayer, 28
- Billy Dixon, 35
- Chelsea Dolan, 33
- Feral Pines, 29
- Alex Ghassan, 35
- Nick Gomez-Hall, 25
- Michela Gregory, 20
- Sara Hoda, 30
- Travis Hough, 35
- Johnny Igaz, 34
- Ara Jo, 29
- Donna Kellogg, 32
- Amanda Kershaw, 34
- Edmond Lapine, 34
- Griffin Madden, 23
- Joseph Matlock, 36
- Jason McCarty, 36
- Draven McGill, 17
- Jennifer Mendiola, 35
- Jennifer Morris, 21
- Vanessa Plotkin, 21
- Wolfgang Renner, 61
- Hanna Ruax, 32
- Benjamin Runnels, 32
- Nicole Siegrist, 29
- Michele Sylvan, 37
- Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye, 31
- Alex Vega, 22
- Peter Wadsworth, 38
- Nick Walrath, 31
- Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32
The 9,880-square-foot (918 m2) converted warehouse, known as Ghost Ship, was home to an artist collective, which worked and lived there. It was informally known by the tenants as Satya Yuga. At the time of the fire, residents were hosting a concert promoted by the house music record label 100% Silk, and featuring musicians from its roster. Around 50 people were present in the building at the time of the fire.
An early report attributed the fire origin to a refrigerator, but this cause was rejected by agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, although agents initially left open the possibility that it was started by another electrical appliance or component. Max Ohr, creative director of the artist collective, said the collective had reported electrical problems to the owner of the building. The fire began on the first floor and spread quickly, and individuals on the second floor were initially unaware of it.
Multiple factors prevented the fire's discovery, impeded the escape process, and led to the eventual loss of life. There were no fire sprinklers in the building, and firefighters on scene heard no smoke detectors. The building was cluttered with furniture, pianos, art, and mannequins, most of which were wooden. Oakland Fire Department Chief Teresa Deloach Reed told reporters, "It was like a maze almost."
There were two stairways, one in the back and one near the front, but neither led directly to an exit. The second floor stairway was concealed behind contents and furnishings. The front stairway, made from a pile of stacked wooden pallets, was initially reported as the building's only stairway.
Only a few people on the second floor were able to escape. They had to crawl along the floor to avoid the smoke filling the building, and struggled to find the front door because of the complicated layout and the clutter blocking the passages. Some survivors were saved by a person who stood at the front door and kept shouting its location so people still in the building could navigate to safety. A large number of victims were trapped on the second floor by smoke filling the stairs and because the pile of pallets used as the front stairs was likely burning.
The first firefighters reached the warehouse at 11:27 p.m. It took five hours for 52 firefighters, using 14 pieces of apparatus, to extinguish the blaze. Search and rescue personnel deployed drone aircraft using thermal imaging that unsuccessfully searched for survivors after a roof collapse made entering the scene unsafe.
Of the five musicians scheduled to perform at the concert, two—headliner Golden Donna and Aja Archuleta—were confirmed to have escaped the fire. The other three musicians on the bill—disc jockey Nackt (Johnny Igaz), electro-industrial performer Joey Casio (Joseph Matlock) and house music artist and radio host Cherushii (Chelsea Faith Dolan)—were killed.
Seventeen-year-old Draven McGill, who sang in the Pacific Boychoir, was the youngest fatality of the fire, and 61-year-old Wolfgang Renner, a musician who played the electronic keyboard, was the oldest. Of the deceased victims, all but one were visitors to the warehouse.
A criminal investigation into the fire was launched by the Alameda County District Attorney's Office on December 4. An arson investigation was also launched. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said charges against anyone found responsible could range from involuntary manslaughter to murder. A report published on February 8, 2017, was inconclusive, noting that the investigation was ongoing and that the electrical system was part of the analysis.
In public remarks on January 23, 2017, lawyers for Ghost Ship founder Derick Ion Almena claimed that the fire originated in a building adjacent to the warehouse, and that Almena should not be held responsible.
On March 14, 2017, Oakland Fire Department Chief Teresa Deloach Reed tendered her retirement. The lead prosecutor from Alameda County in charge of the investigation had been requesting the city fire department's report on the fire for several weeks when he finally received a copy on March 17. Its contents were not released to the public. On March 21, 2017, a judge ruled that all debris from the fire must be preserved as potential evidence in pending lawsuits.
The East Bay Times reported on March 24, 2017, that the son of the building owner wrote an email about electrical problems to Derick Almena on February 15, 2015. The Times stated that Almena illegally sublet living space to other artists within the warehouse. They found emails showing that Almena had complained to the owner's son that electricity in the building used "ancient and violated lines of distribution" that were "in dire need of a total and immediate upgrade." The paper reported that an electrician who was currently unlicensed had performed repairs in 2014. He found ungrounded subpanels and "deferred maintenance dating back decades requiring immediate intervention." He reported to the owners that a single 7.5-kilovolt transformer meant for lighting was being used for three businesses in spaces owned by Ng, exceeding its capacity. An attorney representing victims' families stated, "They were on notice that there was problems with the electricity."
The Oakland fire department, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Alameda County Arson Task Force issued a report on June 19, 2017 about the fire. It stated that all 36 victims died of smoke inhalation. Only one person was seriously injured but not killed. The sheriff's office said, "It appears that people either made it out [safely], or they didn't make it out."
It took three days for investigators to recover all of the victims from the building. They removed the fire debris in five-gallon buckets as they sifted through the collapsed second floor. The debris included wooden pallets, statues, piles of furniture, mobile homes, and mannequins. The makeshift hallways on the first floor were constructed of "aggregates of salvaged and scavenged materials, such as pianos, organs, windows, wood benches, lumber, and innumerable other items stacked next to and on top of each other." The live-work spaces were separated by a variety of things, including "wooden studs, steel beams, doors, window frames, bed frames, railings, pianos, benches, chairs, intact motorhomes and trailers, portions of trailers, corrugated metal sheeting, tapestries, plywood, sculptures, tree stumps and tree limbs." Investigators concluded that the fire originated in the northwest area of the ground floor, but were unable to pinpoint the cause of the fire due to the extreme damage to the building and its contents.
On July 3, 2018, Almena and Harris each pled no contest to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the fire. According to their agreement, Almena was to be sentenced to nine years in jail, and Harris to six. Some family members of those who died in the fire testified and protested the plea deal. Sentencing was set for August 9. But on August 10, 2018 the judge in the case threw out the plea deals. The judge cited the reason was that Derick Almena didn't accept "full responsibility and remorse" for the fire that killed 36 people. Almena and Harris now face life imprisonment if convicted by a jury or if a new plea deal is not reached. The judge said that he would have accepted the plea deal for Harris because Harris showed remorse but the plea deal was made with both Almena and Harris. 
The building was constructed in 1930, and was once part of a milk bottling plant, and later a warehouse for metal pipes. The property was purchased in 1988 by Chor Ng, who is linked to 17 other properties in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the fire, the building had already been under investigation by the Oakland Planning and Building Department for "blight" and "illegal interior construction". Complaints of hazardous garbage and construction debris around the building had also been made. Ng rented the property to the final lease holder, Derick Almena, in 2013.
At least ten complaints had been filed about the property since 1998, the most recent on November 13 and 14, 2016. City building inspectors visited the warehouse on November 17, but left when no one answered the door. Inspectors are required to obtain permission from owners to gain entry, and when that fails, must seek a court order. A spokesperson for the Planning and Building Department noted that an event like the concert on December 2 would have required a special permit, but none had been issued. The City of Oakland's planning director revealed that the building had not been inspected for three decades.
Although the building's owner did not intend the warehouse to be a housing accommodation for any of the artists, the city is investigating whether people were living in the warehouse illegally. Ng stated that no one lived in the building, according to a translation by her daughter Eva. However, neighbors reported that it appeared that people were living in the building. One victim, Peter Wadsworth, was a building resident.
Although the city had labeled the warehouse a "fire hazard", the Ghost Ship's founder, Derick Ion Almena, allegedly did not respond to the city's concerns. Almena has stated that he, his wife, Micah Allison, and his three children had slept inside the warehouse. Residents and others reported that he lived with his wife and children on the second floor and rented space to as many as 18 others who lived in recreational vehicles and makeshift rooms on the first floor. The vice president of the local firefighters union said that the fire marshal's office had been understaffed for years, and that a fire inspector seeing the conditions of the Ghost Ship "would have shut the place down".
Adding to the discussion, on December 13, the Oakland Fire Chief said "there were no indications this was an active business", that there are no city records showing her department had received complaints about the building and that the department "inspects businesses, not buildings".
The Oakland Athletics baseball team offered to match donations for those affected, up to $30,000; the Oakland Raiders football team soon joined them. The Oakland-based Golden State Warriors basketball team announced a donation of $50,000 to the Fruitvale-based Unity Council. The Warriors announced an additional $75,000 donation to relief efforts on December 7. Warriors player Stephen Curry auctioned off two pairs of his shoes for $45,201 to benefit the Oakland Fire Relief fund. By December 9, the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts had raised over $550,000 and scheduled a benefit concert for December 14, featuring Bay Area musicians such as Primus, Tune-yards, and Boots Riley.
On December 3, the record label 100% Silk posted on their Facebook page: "What happened in Oakland is an unbelievable tragedy, a nightmare scenario. Britt and I are beside ourselves, utterly devastated. We are a very tight community of artists and we are all praying, sending love and condolences to everyone involved and their families."
After the fire, a man identified as the Satya Yuga collective's founder, Derick Ion Almena, posted on Facebook that the fire had destroyed his warehouse. This post was criticized by several other Facebook users, who noted that the collective's founder had not mentioned anything about the people killed or injured in the fire.
Almena later clarified his comments, stating, "In my previous Facebook post, I had no idea there was loss of life." In a brief interview on December 5, he spoke of the families of the victims, saying, "They're my children. They're my friends, they're my family, they're my loves, they're my future." In another interview on December 6, Almena said he was "incredibly sorry" and defended himself against charges of profit-seeking, saying, "This is not profit, this is loss. This is a mass grave."
Local residents, including artists and tenants' rights activists, have cited the fire as a symptom of the San Francisco Bay Area's underlying housing crisis. City inspectors have voiced suspicions that dozens of live-work warehouses similar to Ghost Ship exist in Oakland. On December 6, Mayor Libby Schaaf announced $1.7 million in grant funding to create affordable spaces for artists and arts organizations. She announced a planned revival and expansion of a task force on Artist Housing and Work Spaces, and the creation of a fire safety task force.
On December 23, 2016, the parents of two of the victims of the fire filed lawsuits in Alameda County Superior Court. People named in the lawsuit included the building owner, the primary tenant, the event promoter, and a performer at the event.
Comparisons were drawn between this fire and the 1990 Happy Land fire, a nightclub fire in New York City that claimed 87 lives. The Happy Land fire also involved controversial operations of the structure, and suffered from similar conditions including lack of emergency exits and poor maintenance. However that fire was very different in that it was an arson attack/mass murder as opposed to purely negligence.
- List of accidents and disasters by death toll
- List of disasters in the United States by death toll
- List of fires
- List of nightclub fires
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The cause of the fire has not been determined. But Jill Snyder, the special agent who heads the San Francisco division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the building’s “electrical system is part of the analysis.”
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We will now match to $30,000.
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