Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — The deadliest building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade ripped through a warehouse in Oakland, California during a dance party on the night of Dec. 2, killing 36 people. The warehouse had been turned into artists’ studios and illegal living spaces. Here’s what is known about the blaze, the victims, the warehouse and the investigation.
THE FIRE: VICTIMS TRAPPED
Up to 100 people were at the electronic music party at the warehouse — known as the “Ghost Ship” — when the fire started on the first floor. It quickly raged, with smoke billowing into the second level and trapping victims whose only escape route was through the flames.
The victims were overcome by smoke before they could get out of the building.
Former residents said the warehouse was a death trap with few exits, piles of driftwood and a labyrinth of electrical cords. Photos of the interior showed a hodgepodge Bohemian scene of Tibetan prayer flags, Christmas lights and scores of wooden statues of Buddha, the virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, elephants and dragons that sat atop pianos and turntables. The ground floor had RVs and other nooks used as living spaces that were rented out to tenants, while the upstairs had space for concerts.
If you didn’t know you’re way around, you could easily get lost in the maze, former residents said.
Sheriff’s officials said rescue crews found victims in unexpected spots — some holding and protecting each other. Some people managed to text loved ones goodbye and “I love you” before they died.
THE INVESTIGATION: A REFRIGERATOR, ELECTRONIC APPLICANCES AND OTHER POSSIBILE CAUSES
The cause of the fire is not known, but officials have said they have no evidence of arson and are looking at the possibility that a refrigerator or other electronic appliance was to blame. The investigation will take at least several more weeks.
Investigators have declined to say whether they believe the founder of the artists’ colony that used the warehouse, 46-year-old Derick Ion Almena, or the building’s owner, Chor Ng, bear any responsibility in the deaths. Acquaintances and local authorities described repeatedly confronting Almena about what they saw as unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the warehouse.
Ng’s daughter, Eva Ng, said the warehouse was not being used as a dwelling. Almena said he felt himself to be a father figure to all the young artists who had lived in the warehouse with his family, and he was sorry.
Prosecutors dispatched a team to the warehouse site to look for possible evidence of a crime. Though there has been no final determination about whether a crime occurred, the district attorney has said potential charges could range from involuntary manslaughter to murder.
THE WAREHOUSE: AN ILLEGAL PLACE TO LIVE IN AN EXPENSIVE CITY
The warehouse was home to musicians, painters, woodworkers, dancers and other artists who came together to make art and hold dance performances and parties. They were lured at least in part by reasonable rents in a region beset with a housing shortage and exorbitant leases driven by a technology boom.
But former residents have said it was far from an ideal place to live. There was frequently no electricity or running water.
City and state officials fielded years of complaints about dangerous conditions, drugs, neglected children, trash, thefts and squabbles at the illegally converted warehouse. But they never shut it down.
Building officials said a code enforcement officer had not been inside the warehouse for at least 30 years. A firefighter with knowledge of the situation said the warehouse did not appear in a database inspectors use to schedule inspections and may never have been checked for fire hazards. The firefighter spoke only on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution for disclosing the information.
Most recently, Oakland city inspectors received complaints on Nov. 13 about the warehouse being remodeled into residences and on Nov. 14 about an “illegal interior building structure.”
A building inspector who went to the warehouse left after being unable to get inside and later sent a request to the owner to gain entry.
The city plans to strengthen regulations for smoke alarms and exits and clarify city employees’ responsibilities to monitor unsafe structures.
A DJ described as a “philosopher of electronic music.” A poet with a degree in literature. A visual projection artist whose light and video shows enhanced the performances of musicians.
The three were among the victims in the fire. Most of the victims were from the San Francisco Bay Area and in their 20s or 30s, and many were artists.
Oakland has long been hospitable to an underground art scene that flourished in its abandoned industrial warehouses. But its art and music underground is panicking and bracing for a crackdown in the wake of the fire.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has vowed to include artists in any conversation about improving city regulations and ensure they still have affordable places to live and work.
Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez and Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco and Jocelyn Gecker and Paul Elias in Oakland contributed to this report.