On Friday, December 2, 2016, at the Ghost Ship warehouse a fire broke out during an electric dance party, killing at least 36 people in attendance. It is considered the deadliest fire in Oakland history. For perspective, the Oakland Hills fire in 1991 killed 25 people across 1,520 acres. The circumstance of the warehouse fire raises many questions about the ownership of the building, as well as the oversight of the City of Oakland for allowing the conditions to exist in the first place.
Multiple Violations in Two Years
People who are familiar with the “live-work warehouse” Ghost Ship have described the interior as a “labyrinth of artist studios,” cluttered with old furniture, artwork, musical instruments, and colorful curtains. The building was two-stories tall, so ladders were used to access individual lofts on the second floor, and the only staircase in the building was made of loosely constructed wooden pallets. Extension cords crisscrossed the building to supply electrical power to the living spaces. The building’s owner, who was apparently aware that people were living in the warehouse, and collected rent from the tenants, made no effort to conduct any fire safety inspections or improvements. The fire was believed to have been an electrical fire started near the wooden pallet staircase, and it is unclear how old the building’s electrical system was or when the last time it was inspected. The building had no fire sprinklers or smoke detectors, and only two exits. One of the residents of the building had attempted to use a fire extinguisher located within the building to put out the flames, however, it did not work. Just one month prior to the blaze, the building had been cited for hazardous trash and debris surrounding the building for the second time in two years, and there were reports of illegal construction occurring within the building. The City of Oakland claimed that the illegal interior construction violation was being investigated, yet had not inspected the inside of the warehouse before the fire. It was apparently quite obvious to most familiar with the Ghost Ship, including neighbors who repeatedly call the Oakland Police Department with noise violations claims at all hours, that people were living in the building. If indeed it was this clear that people were living inside the building, why did the City of Oakland allow the conditions to continue?
Building was Used Illegally
The Ghost Ship warehouse was only permitted to be used as a warehouse, according to the City of Oakland, however, more than 20 people had been living in the warehouse at the time of the fire. As the City of Oakland had not zoned this warehouse for residential use, and the owner of the building had never gotten permission from the City to renovate the warehouse to accommodate habitation, these residents were living there “illegally”. In addition to the building being used as an unlawful residence, the Ghost Ship has frequently been used to host parties and concerts. City of Oakland officials have confirmed that they had not signed off on a special permit for the party at the Ghost Ship on the night of the fire. Often times, deadly nightclub fires have a number of common factors that lead to tragedy, and the Ghost Ship fire is no different: overcrowding, easily combustible interior decorations, and inadequate exits and stairwells, combined with stage lights, pyrotechnics, or hazardous electrical supply to the performers. Due to the size of the crowd and poor building design, many people unfamiliar with the Ghost Ship building were inevitably trapped while trying to escape the fire. According to a source familiar with the warehouse, “If you were going there for a party, you wouldn’t be aware of the maze that you have to go through to get out.” As is the case with many party hosting locations, they are not built to accommodate a concert and crowds. In addition to the building owner, the promoter of the party could be found liable as a contributor to the unsafe conditions that led to the fire.
Authorities are now launching a criminal investigation in order to determine the cause behind the fire, and investigate whether the building owner violated any laws in renting spaces out in the building and hosting the party, among other potential charges. However, there is some question as to whether the City of Oakland itself has any responsibility for allowing the conditions of the Ghost Ship to continue despite the repeated warnings to the owner regarding safety violations. City building inspections exist precisely to prevent these types of tragedies. According to ex-employees, the owner of the warehouse was repeatedly warned by fire officials regarding the condition of the building, and he apparently “laughed off” and disregarded the warnings. The City of Oakland had been notified by neighbors of the building regarding violations on a number of occasions, and yet failed to properly investigate the interior of the warehouse. If indeed the City of Oakland was aware that the building was housing live-in tenants, there should have been more action taken on their part to ensure the building’s owner complied with zoning and safety regulations, or condemned the building. Regarding the responsible parties of the fire, Micha Star Liberty stated, “Right now, as authorities continue to investigate the causes of the fire, there are many questions that still need to be answered. However, regardless of the root cause of the fire, the owner of the building needs to be held responsible for those families that he has harmed by his careless maintenance of the building, and blatant disregard for zoning rules and safety warnings by officials. In this instance, I believe that the City of Oakland shares the blame for allowing the conditions of the warehouse to fester, as they were aware of the repeated violations, should have had some indication that people were living illegally in the warehouse, and should have known that the warehouse was being used to illegally host parties.”
Legal Action Will be Pending
Our hearts go out to the victims and their families of this horrific tragedy. “Accidents” don’t occur by happenstance but are usually the evidence of repeated careless or reckless behavior, and often tied to profitability or cost-cutting. Instances such as these change lives and will only happen again if legal action is not taken to change the laws governing buildings. If you or a family member was injured or fell victim to the fire, while this time is tragic and heartbreaking, understanding the legal rights of victims is prudent to know what needs to be done to prevent this type of disaster from occurring again.