The Ghost Ship Warehouse
The December 2, 2016 Oakland fire broke out during an advertised underground electronic music show taking place on the second floor of the Ghost Ship, a two-story warehouse on 31st Avenue in the Fruitvale District of Oakland.
Built in the 1930s, the two-story warehouse space had been unlawfully turned into residential space that could host as many as 20 people. At the time of the fire, the Ghost Ship did not have permits to host special events, nor were any businesses registered there.
Inside the warehouse, wood pallets, window sashes and other materials were used to convert the space into a series of partitioned rooms. Residents had built a makeshift stairwell going up to the building’s second story, used webs of extension cords to power certain areas of the warehouse and used a propane tank to heat water.
Some who survived the fire described the building’s interior as chock full of flammable material, as a “fire trap” and a “tinderbox.” According to fire officials, the building was not equipped with fire alarms or sprinklers.
The warehouse had been the subject of multiple complaints to the City of Oakland. Over the last 10 years, the Alameda County tax assessors have collected over $25,000 in “special charges” against the Ghost Ship’s owner, 62-year-old Chor Ng, who has owned the warehouse since it was purchased in 1988 by a family trust that Ng controls. In addition to the Ghost Ship warehouse, Ng also owns other properties in the East Bay estimated to be worth around $5 million.
The Ng family entered into a lease agreement with 46-year-old Derick Ion Almena, who was the building’s operator.
City officials have said it has been over 30 years since a building inspector set foot in the warehouse. The fire department hadn’t inspected the building in over a decade because it was believed to be vacant, and thus not required to be checked by fire inspectors, per state law.
Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed told the media that the Ghost Ship owner and operator never filed for proper permits, which would have alerted the city that the building wasn’t vacant.
Where Did the Warehouse Fire Start?
Those attending the show first knew something was wrong when they saw a sudden plume of smoke followed by an onslaught of heat. Chaos ensued as the 100 or so people on the second floor frantically searched for an exit. One of the reasons people weren’t able to safely escape the blaze was because the building had only two exits, and each presented a challenge for people to reach.
When the fire broke out, those who were on the second floor had to two choices, to find the front stairway, which lacked a direct route to the building’s main exit or find the back stairway, which was far from an exit. For many, finding either stairway presented a challenge in and of itself due to unfamiliarity with the building and the chaos of people moving quickly through a smoke-filled space.
The front stairway was built by Ghost Ship residents. Described by survivors as something akin to a ramp, this stairway made two 90-degree turns onto two landings, one of which was made from a wood pallet. After negotiating the turns and making it down the stairs, people had to make their way to the main exit, which wasn’t immediately visible and lacked a clear direct route.
In order to reach the exit, people had to get around three pianos and wall partitions by making two left turns and a right turn through a narrow passage. A number of survivors said they were forced to crawl on the floor so they could continue breathing while trying to escape. Many said the only reason they were able to make it out alive was because someone at the front door started shouting the location of the main exit.
The Ghost Ship’s other stairway was in the back of the building behind the makeshift stage where the musicians were performing. It isn’t known if people tried to use this stairway, as it would have put them far from both the main exit and the side exit.
Who Are the Oakland Fire Victims?
The Ghost Ship fire ripped a hole in Oakland’s tight-knit underground arts scene. Thirty-six people had their lives tragically cut short in this preventable tragedy.
The lone Ghost Ship resident killed in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire was 38-year-old Peter Wadsworth. It is unclear if Mr. Wadsworth was attending the rave or if he was merely in his home when the fire broke out.
The other deceased victims were either musicians performing at the event or guests attending the concert. Their ages ranged from 17 to 61, though the majority were in their 20s and 30s.
Below are the identities and some information for some of those who died in the December 2, 2016 Oakland warehouse fire:
Cash Askew, 22: A guitarist living in Oakland, Askew played in the music duo Them Are Us Too.
Em B, 33: A poet living in Oakland who also worked as a baker and barista.
Jonathan Bernbaum, 34: Berkeley native living in Oakland, Bernbaum interned at Pixar Animation Studios before working as a visual artist for electronic music shows.
Barrett Clark, 35: A sound engineer who worked at countless Bay Area music venues, including Bottom of the Hill and Mezzanine.
David Cline, 24: Oakland resident who played the clarinet and excelled as a volleyball player.
Micah Danemayer, 28: A Massachusetts native living in Oakland, Danemayer was in an electronica band and involved with visual arts.
Billy Dixon, 35: Oakland native and versatile musician who played guitar and keyboards. Dixon was also known as a beatboxer and music producer.
Chelsea Dolan, 33: San Francisco resident who made electronic music under the name Cherushii.
Alex Ghassan, 35: An independent filmmaker living in Oakland who was known for sharing stories of the oppressed struggling to make their way in the world.
Nick Gomez-Hall, 25: After spending his formative years in San Diego, Gomez-Hall attended Brown University. He loved playing guitar and driving his pickup truck.
Michela Gregory, 20: A student at San Francisco State studying child development, Gregory was attending the show with her boyfriend, 22-year-old Alex Vega, who also perished in the fire.
Sara Hoda, 30: Walnut Creek resident who worked as a teacher at Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland.
Travis Hough, 35: An Oakland resident who was an artist, glassblower and member of the electronic band Ghost of Lightning.
Johnny Igaz, 34: Oakland resident and DJ that was a mentor to many. His passion for music was matched only by his passion for people.
Ara Jo, 29: Oakland visual artist and organizer of the East Bay Alternative Zine Fest.
Donna Kellogg, 32: A recent graduate of San Francisco State, Ms. Kellogg was a “freewheeling and free-spirited” woman who worked as a barista at High Wire coffee shop in Berkeley.
Amanda Kershaw, 34: Resident of San Francisco who fell in love with the Bay Area, Ms. Kershaw owned her own photography business called Panda Snaps.
Edmond Lapine, 34: A funky, magnetic Oakland musician who was happiest playing, writing, appreciating and thinking about music.
Griffin Madden, 23: UC Berkeley graduate who double majored in philosophy and Slavic Languages and Literature.
Joseph Matlock, 36: Known as Joey Casio, Mr. Matlock was thought of as a legend in the Bay Area punk and electronica scenes.
Jason McCarty, 36: An Iowa native, Mr. McCarty started creating art at the age of three and later moved to the Bay Area to attend the San Francisco Art Institute.
Draven McGill, 17: The youngest victim, Mr. McGill was a Ruth Asawa School of the Arts student whose father works for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office—the agency charged with recovering and examining the bodies from the Ghost Ship tragedy.
Jennifer Mendiola, 35: An Oakland resident, Ms. Mendiola was set to receive her doctorate in health psychology from UC Merced.
Jennifer Morris, 24: Morris was a UC Berkeley junior who was majoring in media studies. Her roommate, 21-year-old Vanessa Plotkin, was also killed in the Oakland fire.
Feral Pines, 29: A garage band bass player who was one of several Bay Area LGBT community members who perished in the fire.
Vanessa Plotkin, 21: A Southern California native attending UC Berkeley.
Wolfgang Renner, 61: Oakland resident and electronic musician, Mr. Renner was the oldest victim to die in the Ghost Ship fire.
Hanna Ruax, 32: From Helsinki, Finland, Ruax had plans to marry Alex Ghassan, another Ghost Ship victim.
Benjamin Runnels, 32: An Oakland musician who went by the name Charlie Prowler, Mr. Runnels was comfortable singing jazz standards and composing electronic music. He played in a band called Introflirt with another victim, Nicole Siegrist.
Nicole Siegrist, 29: A Bay Area musician who went by the name Denalda Nicole Renae, Ms. Siegrist played synthesizer and the Omnichord.
Michele Sylvan, 37: An Oakland clothing designer who lived with fire victim Wolfgang Renner.
Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye, 31: A music manager at Shazam who also moonlighted as a nail artist at her “Underground Nail Bar.”
Alex Vega, 22: Vega, who loved working on cars, perished in the fire with his girlfriend, Michela Gregory.
Peter Wadsworth, 38: Described as a “walking catalog of correct factual knowledge,” Mr. Wadsworth was the only victim who lived at the Ghost Ship warehouse.
Nick Walrath, 31: An attorney who had just completed clerkships at the U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court of San Francisco.
Brandon C. Wittenauer, 32: A Hayward electronic musician who regularly supported other artists in the Bay Area scene.
What Do We Know About the Oakland Warehouse Owner?
A number of questions linger in the wake of this tragedy. Did the Ghost Ship owner, Chor Ng, know about the building’s hazards prior to the warehouse fire? If she did, what, if anything, did she do to address them?
Media reports have indicated that Ng did have some presence in the area. A number of people who used to live at the Ghost Ship have said either Ng or her daughter would come by the warehouse. It isn’t clear if either saw that people were living in the building under such dangerous conditions.
Ng owns several other properties in the Oakland area. Griselda Ceja, a former tenant who rented space in the building next to the Ghost Ship for about 20 years, told the New York Times that Ng “never took care of the building.”
Ceja, 43, used the space as a beauty salon. She recalled that when she would dry her customers’ hair, a circuit box and lighting fixtures in the building would occasionally spark. She also noted that an emergency exit was always blocked, the electrical system would consistently fail and she occasionally saw rats in the building’s walls.
“We were scared. We were all scared,” Ceja said.
Chor Ng’s daughter, Eva, has told the media that the family wasn’t aware that Derick Ion Almena had turned the building into a makeshift live/work space.
What Do We Know About the Ghost Ship Operator?
The Ghost Ship was leased from Ng by Derick Ion Almena and his wife, Micah Allison. According to reports, Almena paid Ng $4,500 per month to lease the warehouse. Almena, Allison and their three children lived on the second floor of the building. They were staying in a hotel on the night of the warehouse fire.
Almena reportedly subleased space to tenants who lived and/or worked in the building for between $500 and $1,500 per month. He also sublet the space for private events, such as the one hosted at the Ghost Ship on December 2.
Almena has been praised by some for creating the art collective, where artists and others could work and live cheaply in an area where rent prices have skyrocketed in recent years. Others describe Almena as violent opportunist whose main interest was money.
According to court records, Almena was on probation at the time of the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire. He was arrested in January 2015 at the Ghost Ship for possession of stolen property. In December 2015, he was arrested again, this time in Los Angeles for petty theft.
This year, Almena was allegedly involved in a confrontation with a party promoter and a friend that turned violent. Both men filed for restraining orders against Almena that were later denied after they failed to appear in court.
What Do We Know About the Ghost Ship Music Event Promoters?
Promoted on Facebook beginning in October, the electronic music show at the Ghost Ship was organized by Jon Hrabko of Oakland with the band Golden Donna scheduled as the headliner. The event’s Facebook page said the show would be held at a secret location to be announced that day with a cover charge of $10 before 11:00 p.m. and $15 any time after.
The city said no one involved with the show had obtained a permit to host an event at the Ghost Ship. It is unclear whether Hrabko knew the warehouse lacked the necessary permit to host such an event.
Is the City of Oakland Culpable for the Warehouse Fire?
Oakland city officials have repeatedly said that there is no record of the firefighters or inspectors going inside the Ghost Ship warehouse for at least 12 years. Building code inspectors hadn’t entered the structure in over 30 years.
But according to reports, the Ghost Ship and the lot next door had been the subject of nearly two dozen building code complaints and various city actions. Other reports have presented the possibility that some fire officials knew at least some of the issues inside the warehouse.
A fire house (Station 13) is located roughly 500 feet from the Ghost Ship. Oakland artist Walker Johnson, who attended a concert at the warehouse in 2014, said he saw firefighters inside the building, apparently looking for a neighborhood arsonist. City officials haven’t commented on Johnson’s claims.
Why the warehouse wasn’t the subject of more scrutiny from the city remains a mystery.
Cause of the Oakland Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire
The cause of the fire in Oakland is being investigated by the Oakland Fire Department and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The Alameda District Attorney’s office has launched a criminal investigation into the Ghost Ship fire, which could lead to murder and involuntary manslaughter charges. Any charges are pending the outcome of the investigation. The DA’s office has not specifically targeted anyone as of yet, though legal experts believe Ng, Almena and the event organizers could potentially face prosecution.
Oakland Warehouse Fire Attorneys Pursuing Negligence Claims
If you were injured or lost a loved one in the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire, consider speaking with an experienced attorney to learn more about your legal rights. The law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman is dedicated to providing compassionate representation for those harmed by this tragedy.
We intend to hold all negligent parties accountable for this tragedy. Let us help you get through this difficult time while pursuing justice on your behalf.
Contact us or call (800) 827-0087 today for a free case evaluation.