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Ghost Ship Fire Anniversary Nears

by Seth Hemmelgarn

The site of the Ghost Ship warehouse as it looked November 25, nearly a year after a fire killed 36 people
The site of the Ghost Ship warehouse as it looked November 25, nearly a year after a fire killed 36 people  (Source:Jane Philomen Cleland)

Saturday, December 2 will mark the first anniversary of Oakland's Ghost Ship warehouse fire, which killed 36 people who had gathered for an electronic music performance.

Since the blaze, which took the lives of at least three transgender people, government officials have worked to improve safety, and two men who essentially ran the building have each been charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

The fire and the loss of life brought an outpouring of support from local artists, including those in the LGBTQ community. Memorial art projects were unveiled, and many artists called attention to high rents in the Bay Area that resulted in some people living in unsafe buildings, such as the Ghost Ship.

In a November 9 report to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and the City Council, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth said the fire "was a tragedy that resonated across Oakland and the nation. It highlighted deep and complex issues that Oakland has been wrestlilng with as a community: the impact of the housing affordability crisis, the importance of maintaining a vibrant arts community in Oakland, and the need to ensure that our housing and public spaces are safe and habitable."

Among other steps, the city has investigated 32 properties "where unpermitted residential occupancies were suspected," the report says. Officials are working with owners of 20 properties to bring them into compliance while 11 have been closed or resolved. The city has worked to assist people who've been evicted from their buildings as a result of the closures, according to the report.

Shortly after the fire, news emerged that the fire department indicated that it had not inspected the building, at 1305 31st Avenue, in several years.

Since then, Chief Darin White has taken over the agency, replacing Teresa Deloach Reed. The city also plans to hire 12 new fire code inspectors by the end of 2018.

Work's being done in other areas, as well. The police department now has a policy requiring officers to provide detailed reports of unpermitted parties or events that they witness to the agency's Special Events Unit so that information can be shared with other city departments.

Earlier this year, officials revealed documents related to the fire that show police and others were familiar with what the warehouse was being used for long before the fatal fire.

All of the city's inspection data is being converted to a database system already in use by the Planning and Inspection Department.

"The expanded database will allow departments to more efficiently and effectively share information," the report says. The new system is expected to cost $500,000. The process is expected to be completed by the end of December and launch in the first quarter of 2018.


Criminal Charges

Along with changes in the city's inspections system, the fire has also resulted in criminal charges.

In June, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley charged Derick Ion Almena, 47, and Max Cardin Harris, 27, with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

According to court records, Almena was the leaseholder on the warehouse and Harris acted as the "creative director," collected rent from tenants, and performed other duties. Both men lived in the building.

Despite the fact that Almena had lived for years with his family at the warehouse, which reportedly didn't have fire sprinklers and was visited numerous times by police, building inspectors, and others, attorney J. Tony Serra has said that Almena didn't know the building was unsafe.

Families of some of the victims filed civil lawsuits in connection with the incident earlier this year.

Almena wouldn't have allowed his family to live in the building if he'd known it was a "fire trap," Serra said. "He didn't ever envisage this." Almena and his family weren't at the warehouse the night of the fire.

Micah Allison, Almena's wife, said in June, "We all have been devastated by the loss of life December 2. We would never have lived in a place we thought was unsafe."

Teresa Drenick, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said in June that Almena and Harris had "deceived" police and other officials, allowing people to live at the site and holding unpermitted events there.

They blocked one exit, leaving only one way to get out of the building, which had "no fire suppression or lighted pathways," she said.

Additionally, O'Malley said, they "very purposefully" crammed the site with "highly flammable" materials. The building reportedly was filled with pianos, rugs, artwork, and other objects.

O'Malley said that there was a "nearly impossible labyrinth of the defendants' making to get out of that building."

The Alameda County Coroner's Bureau has determined that all 36 people who were killed in the fire died from smoke inhalation.

Although electrical wiring in the building has reportedly been suspected as what started the blaze, Drenick has said, "The evidence was largely consumed in the fire itself. The cause of the fire will remain undetermined."

Almena and Harris, who have pleaded not guilty, are set to have a preliminary hearing Monday, December 4, when a judge will decide whether there's enough evidence to hold them for trial. Both men, who face 39 years in prison if convicted of the charges, are being held in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California on $750,000 bail.

Gehno Aviance, a gay man who often works as a DJ and knew many of the people who died in the fire, said in a November Facebook exchange with the Bay Area Reporter, "Those of us that were close to the victims, including spouses and significant others, have had a very challenging year. Coming to terms with this tragedy and how it relates to us as a community and individually has brought out a lot of emotions in a lot of people that I am close to, including myself. I also feel that many of us have made sure to express our love for each other and to be kinder to each other."

Additionally, many have "doubled down" on their work, said Aviance.

For example, he said, "Roche and Blake Anderson continue the event that they were producing with [fire victim] Chelsea Faith a.k.a Cherushii at Underground SF called 'Run The Length of Your Wildness' on Monday nights. It's an intimate gathering of DJs, artist and electronic music enthusiasts. Sometimes I can still feel her energy at the venue."

He also said that Vital Arts (http://cast-sf.org/strategies/vital-arts/) and other groups have been working to honor victims of the fire "by ensuring access to affordable, safe housing, work, and performance spaces for Bay Area artists."


Several nightclubs in San Francisco have been asked to have a moment of silence at 11:24 p.m. Saturday in memory of the Ghost Ship victims. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/917830935031583/

To view the city administrator's report, go to https://goo.gl/3tzGvF

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