The Oakland warehouse is close to a firehouse. Yet amid haphazard inspection protocols, it became the site of America’s worst structure fire in a decade.
OAKLAND, Calif. —The charred, roofless shell of the Ghost Ship, the warehouse where 36 people died in early December, is clearly visible from the driveway of Oakland firehouse No. 13.
Though the warehouse sits less than 200 yards away, the firehouse’s closeness did nothing to help prevent the deadliest U.S. structural fire in more than a decade. For years before the Dec. 2 fire, the Ghost Ship may just as well have been invisible to the Oakland Fire Department.
Loud and raucous parties. Frequent complaints by neighbors. Calls summoning firefighters to put out fires at nearby properties. None of these triggered an inspection of the warehouse by the crew at the firehouse a block away.
A criminal investigation led by the Alameda County district attorney has started into the liability of the owner of the property, the master tenant who ran the warehouse and others. But interviews and a review of documents show that the fire was a disaster waiting to happen, a deadly mix of a flawed safety-inspection system and a shortage of affordable housing that led tenants to live in a building that was never intended to be a residence. Once the fire began, people were trapped in a cluttered warehouse with just two exits.
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The two city agencies responsible for examining the safety of Oakland’s structures, the building department and the Fire Department, hadn’t inspected the Ghost Ship in 30 years.
The database that fire officials use to track properties in need of inspections is outdated, resulting in a process that is haphazard at best. Beyond a list of buildings mandated by the state, Oakland leaves it up to the Fire Department to determine which commercial buildings should be inspected and how often.
The city’s website, which laid out details of the program, was altered after the fire, deleting a passage that called for mandatory annual inspections of all commercial buildings. The entry was changed to say inspections should take place “approximately” every two years.
Until last spring, the department had had no fire marshal in about three years. The department remains significantly understaffed, with 62 vacancies, despite adequate funding.
Though people were living in the warehouse in clear view of neighbors and authorities, they were living there illegally; the structure was registered with the county as a warehouse, not a residence. Oakland’s housing crisis has spurred people across the city to live in unsafe places.
Also illegal were the concert and party.
Oakland’s fire chief, Teresa Deloach Reed, defended her department this week. “We’ve been doing what we always did, and up to this point it worked,” she said. “But now we’ve discovered that maybe what we’ve been doing is not working.”
Deloach Reed, however, rejected blame for the fire.
She said she was aware the city’s website had been altered to remove mention of mandatory annual inspections and described it as a belated update reflecting a policy change that occurred about two years ago.
But employees and owners of businesses near the Ghost Ship, including a grocery store, a dry cleaner and a fire-extinguisher vendor, all said firefighters inspected their facilities annually. They questioned why the Ghost Ship was not inspected, too.
The building that housed the Ghost Ship was built in 1930, according to county records. It sat amid factories, mills and beer gardens established by the neighborhood’s many immigrants. Al Garcia, a longtime resident, recalled that it was part of a milk-bottling plant in the 1950s and 1960s, and then served as a warehouse for copper and cast-iron pipes.
Chor Nar Siu Ng bought the building in 1988, also acquiring a lot to its south and a building to its north. In the years that followed, the city began fining her for what it called “nuisance or substandard or hazardous or injurious” conditions at the lot and the next-door building. From 2005-14, Ng paid at least $26,570.20 in “code enforcement” fees to the city for the empty lot.
Five complaints were lodged with the building department between 2014 and 2016 about unsafe conditions on both properties.
But the building department, headed by Darin Ranelletti and charged with following up on public complaints, said that while inspectors had visited the site, none had entered the building in 30 years.
Ranelletti said an inspector visited the warehouse lot on Nov. 17 and 18 in response to two complaints, but was “unable to get visual access” to the property. The inspector had scheduled another visit for Jan. 16. Ng has not responded to requests for comment.
Ng began renting the warehouse to an artist named Derick Ion Almena in 2013. As the master tenant, he served as a kind of de facto landlord, illegally subleasing the space for events like the Dec. 2 party. Almena did not respond to interview requests.
He packed the building with antiques and oddities, moved his wife and three children into an upstairs compound, and began renting downstairs space for roughly $600 a head, a bargain in a city where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment has risen to almost $2,500 a month.
The Ghost Ship party was held without any permit. By 11:15 p.m. Dec. 2, the party in an upstairs area was just getting going. The room smelled of marijuana and cigarettes.
The first indication of the fire was a new smell, like a firecracker. A group illuminated the floor with iPhones to look for the source, and saw wisps of smoke coming up through the cracks. About a half-dozen people headed to the stairs, and told others to, too. For most, it would be too late. In a few minutes, the faint odor had become a black cloud. Darin White, deputy chief of the Oakland Fire Department who helped coordinate efforts to put out the fire, said smoke would have overpowered victims after just a few gulps.
Mike Madden, the father of one victim, learned that his son, Griffin, was dead a week later. Madden said he had yet to hear from city officials. What he really wants to know, he said, is this: “What’s being done to stop the next one?”