Oakland Warehouse Fire Kills 36

A December warehouse dance party turned deadly when a kitchen fire resulted in the deaths of 36 partygoers. Officials are calling it the deadliest blaze in the United States in 13 years and the deadliest in all of Oakland’s history.

Officials say the fire began on the first floor when a faulty refrigerator ignited an electrical fire in the kitchen. Billowing smoke traveled up two stairwells, at least one of which was built of pallets, and trapped occupants on the second floor where most died of smoke inhalation.

Scene-enthusiasts knew the Oakland warehouse as ‘Ghost Ship’, an informal — and illegal —  live/work space. The two-story, 10,000 square foot building contained a series of custom, hand-built spaces for artists and musicians on the first floor and an event space on the second floor. It was crammed end-to-end with artwork, musical instruments, furniture and other wood and cloth odds and ends, and former residents called it a “tinderbox.”

Finding Responsibility for the Ghost Ship Fire

The warehouse’s owner claims to be unaware people lived in the building. His representatives are stating publicly that he leased it only as a studio space.  However, people familiar with the property state that at least 20 people were living in Ghost Ship at the time of the fire and, with trailers in the adjacent lot and consistent foot traffic, that fact would be clear even with the most cursory of visits.

The cause of the fire was faulty wiring and overloaded circuits. Zoned commercial, and left largely untouched for decades, the warehouse lacked much-needed electrical updates. Former LA arson prosecutor Jean M. Daly stated that the “modern equipment, laptops, sound systems, air conditioners and fridges place a very different burden on the system.”

Police were repeatedly called to the warehouse by neighbors, previous occupants, and even attendants who understood the dangers. After a December 2014 show, a partygoer notified the local Fire Department of its unsafe conditions. The hazardous conditions included zero overhead sprinklers, a maze-like interior, and poor exit signage. One resident reported calling police three times in one week. She also noted seeing Child Protective Services along with other government agencies visit the warehouse. This past October, mere weeks before the fire, a video shows Oakland police walking throughout the warehouse itself where they no doubt saw the cluttered and unsafe living conditions.

Yet, no citations were ever made against either the building owner nor any of the occupants.

Criminal and Civil Charges

Prosecutors are considering filing criminal charges against either the building owner or manager. “The question is whether or not the range of chargers could be murder all the way to involuntary manslaughter. And until we know what the evidence shows us, there may be other charges if the evidence presents that,” said DA representative Nancy O’Malley.

It is also likely, given what is known thus far of the interior conditions and continual reporting of those conditions, that the families of 36 victims will come forward with civil lawsuits against the property owner and/or government agencies aware of the conditions. The conditions mirror the case of a 1997 inferno in San Francisco that killed four young children and a grandmother. The jury held the housing agency responsible for unsafe conditions causing their deaths and awarded family members $15 million.

Photo: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times