Editorials

Plenty of blame to go around for Ghost Ship deaths

Oakland fire death toll climbs

The Oakland Fire Department and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office announced that 24 victims had been located in the debris of an Oakland warehouse fire that struck Friday, Nov. 2, 2016. Melinda Drayton, battalion chief for Oakland fire departmen
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The Oakland Fire Department and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office announced that 24 victims had been located in the debris of an Oakland warehouse fire that struck Friday, Nov. 2, 2016. Melinda Drayton, battalion chief for Oakland fire departmen

There were propane tanks stashed in corners, plus space heaters, hot plates, candles, exposed electrical wires dangling from the ceiling. Gas-powered generators hummed mere feet away from handmade light fixtures hooked up with extension cords.

But there was no sprinkler system and only two ways out of the Ghost Ship, a dilapidated Oakland warehouse where at least 36 people died Friday night in a blaze that erupted during an illegal dance music rave. It’s one of the deadliest fires in California’s history.

The Ghost Ship was a disaster waiting to happen – and everyone who entered the place seemed to know it, for all 10,000 square feet of the warehouse was crammed with old furniture, rugs, makeshift bedrooms, art studios, instruments, old doors and half-finished sculptures.

Recreational vehicles were parked on the ground floor, and a shoddily hand-built staircase to the second level, which became a bottleneck for fleeing ravers, “was literally made out of kindling,” according to one artist quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle.

The immediate impulse is to blame the city of Oakland for this horrific fire. The cause hasn’t been determined yet, but we know that the artist colony has been on the city’s radar for a while. The warehouse wasn’t zoned for residential use, nor licensed to be a nightclub, but that it was doing both was no secret.

Neighbors had complained about noise and blight at the Ghost Ship for years. In early 2015, police responded to reports of an illegal rave there. And less than a month ago, city inspectors opened an investigation into the habitability of the warehouse, but were never able to get inside to take a look. Residents have said they were told to hide all evidence of living there if authorities ever showed up.

So, yes, Oakland’s lack of aggressive code enforcement certainly should be one place to point fingers. But the sad truth is there’s more than enough blame to go around.

There are the rave promoters and underground musicians who decided to hold a show at the Ghost Ship in the first place. One Oakland musician, Jon Hrabko, pushed the event on Facebook for months, getting nearly 600 people to agree to attend.

There’s also the property owner, Chor Ng, whose relatives insist they had no idea people were living in the Ghost Ship. And there’s the property manager, Derick Ion Almena, who was living in the warehouse with his wife and children, and designed much of the space without permits from the city.

News accounts quote friends as saying they warned Almena repeatedly that the Ghost Ship was a tinderbox that was bound to get people killed, but he laughed them off. In an interview with KGO-TV on Monday, Almena said people who died Friday night “are my children. They are my friends. They are family. They are my loves.” Not surprisingly, criminal charges are a possibility.

But at least some blame lies with an invisible culprit – the sky-high housing prices that made a fire trap like the Ghost Ship acceptable to so many young people in the first place. Residents paid between $500 and $1,500 a month for space there, a bargain in the Bay Area, where affordable housing is all but nonexistent. The result was a cool, freewheeling, communal space for artists to live, work and play, even if it was also a hazard.

Such warehouses are magnets for upstart electronic dance artists for many of the same reasons. They want to perform but need to do it on the cheap. And so artist enclaves that host underground raves dot Oakland and many other cities across California. Cities, including Sacramento, must remain vigilant. No rave is worth someone’s life.

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