Authorities investigate safety violations after Oakland fire

oakland warehouse fire

The scene after the fire. Image source: ABC7 News

A fire ripped through a warehouse in Oakland, California on Friday night, killing dozens of party-goers. The building went up in flames in a matter of minutes after a fire started near one of the two exits.

"It was a tinderbox. I heard the word ‘tinderbox’ used over and over afterward," a survivor told reporters. "It was just relentless, I don’t recollect anybody coming out.”

Although the building was rented as a warehouse space, investigators have discovered that an art collective called Ghost Ship not only used the space as a studio, but a residential space. The 4,000 square foot structure was not up to code as a nightclub or a residential space; the area contained massive amounts of flammable wood and tapestries, the lower floor had been turned into a “maze” of partitions, and the stairs to the building’s upper level were not up to code. The building did not have appropriate sprinklers, exits, and signs leading to the exits. “It was just a labyrinth of little areas,” Deputy Fire Chief Mark Hoffmann told reporters.

According to firefighters and the few victims who managed to make it out of the building alive, many party-goers who had been on the upper level found themselves trapped and unable to use the narrow makeshift staircase. The staircase was built of wooden pallets (an especially hazardous building material), the stairs were uneven sizes, there was no handrail, and the staircase was so narrow that only one person could use it at a time. Only minutes after the fire began, the roof collapsed, trapping as many as 40 people inside the burning building.

Missed opportunities to prevent a crisis

At the time of the fire, Oakland’s Planning and Building Department was investigating complaints by neighbors about the illegal use of the building for housing and blight. An investigator showed up at the building on November 17th to investigate interior construction that was not up to code, but left after being unable to enter the building.

James Pauley, president of the National Fire Protection Association, spoke with reporters about the importance of setting and enforcing fire codes in “assembly occupancy” buildings, in which large crowds may congregate in dark rooms with few exits. Theaters, nightclubs, and similar public spaces are considered “assembly occupancy” buildings. The Ghost Ship did not follow Oakland’s rules for assembly occupancy buildings; it also failed to follow safety regulations for a residential building. Former residents of the Ghost Ship described dangerous conditions in the building, with exposed electrical wires dangling near a staircase, hot plates and space heaters used freely, and a shower heated with propane tanks. Residents were instructed by the organizers of Ghost Ship to hide pillows, bedding, and other evidence of occupancy when their landlord came by to inspect the building. Some residents paid as much as $1,500 to live in the unsafe space—a fortune for most Americans, but a steal in rapidly gentrifying Oakland.

A fire relief fund has been set up on YouCaring to help victims of the fire or their grieving loved ones to pay for medical bills or memorial services. People who were known to be partying in the area have been asked to check in as “safe” on Facebook. Friends and family who are still looking for loved ones can contact the county at (510) 382-3000 or visit the Alameda County Family Assistance Center at 2425 E. 12th Street.

It is not yet known whether the owner of the warehouse or the organizers of Ghost Ship who rented the space will be facing criminal charges. Civil suits may be a possibility, although it is unlikely that the space was properly insured as a residence or nightclub, and it is unclear what the organizers of Ghost Ship did with the money that they collected from their subletters.

oakland ghost ship

A photograph from inside the building, showing flammable materials and haphazard construction. Image source: The Oakland Ghost Ship website (now taken down)

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