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.
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Just so everyone in Fresno and other California cities understand, this is the inevitable result of lax code enforcement. This is what happens when people who are hired, trained and paid to enforce the rules imposed by City Hall look the other way.
The cause of the Oakland fire hasn’t been determined, 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.
While Oakland officials must live with the fact that they failed to enforce their own rules, blame must be assigned to others, too.
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.
And at least some blame lies with the sky-high housing prices that made a fire trap like the Ghost Ship acceptable to many young people. 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.
Cities must be vigilant. There is a reason why code enforcement exists: to protect people from themselves and unscrupulous property managers and landlords.
It’s too bad that in many places, these rules are winked at – until after tragedy knocks at the door.