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Ghost Ship report details difficult recovery of victims

The report is the first official account of what witnesses told investigators, how fire crews fought the inferno and where the bodies were located


Ghost Ship fire


By Kimberly Veklerov
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — Many of the 36 victims of the Ghost Ship fire were found in clusters -- some in areas never touched by flame and others amid severely charred debris, according to an investigative report released Monday detailing the difficulties recovery teams faced after the Dec. 2 blaze in the artist collective.

Only seven of the victims were found on the second floor of the converted warehouse, in a section that did not collapse or burn but had extensive smoke damage, according to the report on Oakland’s deadliest fire.

The rest of the victims were found either on the ground floor or in the rubble from the partial collapse of the second floor. All 36 victims died of smoke inhalation.

The report is the first official account of what witnesseses told investigators, how fire crews fought the inferno and where the bodies of victims were located. It also provides a detailed description of the artist collective that former residents described as a jumbled labyrinth, and where everything was positioned during the blaze.

In two instances, recovery teams found victims wrapped within large rugs that had collapsed from the upper level into the first floor, including onto motor homes parked inside.

“In the space between the two motorhomes a large area rug was suspended among partially collapsed debris from the second floor. Eight victims were recovered from within this rug and next to it,” the report said.

Nearby, atop one of the trailers, three victims were found within another large rug that had fallen with the second floor collapse.

Authorities spent five round-the-clock days combing through rubble before calling off search-and-recovery efforts.

The details were laid out in the 50-page Origin and Cause Report by federal and local officials. The report identified the fire origin -- the northwest corner of the ground floor, and explained why investigators were unable to determine how the fire began. Even after considering factors such as fire pattern, ventilation effect, fuel load and potential heat sources, the extensive damage around the fire’s origin made a ruling on cause impossible, the report said.

The collective’s primary tenant, Derick Almena, and second-in-command, Max Harris, were arrested and charged this month with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths. Officials said the pair had created a fire trap and then packed the building with paying guests for music shows like the one held the night of the fire.

The report described the complicated, makeshift electrical system that had failed in the day or two prior to the fire. Tenants told investigators they didn’t know where their power supply originated but were aware that the electrical system was faulty.

City officials had previously refrained from releasing the documents, citing the criminal investigation by the Alameda County district attorney’s office.

Absent from the more than a half dozen witness interviews included in the report was any statement from Almena. Harris, however, told investigators that as the warehouse’s creative director and handyman, he didn’t allow smoking, candles, incense or space heaters.

“Harris stated the warehouse was supplied electricity from the body shop next door so if one of the fuses blew, they would have to wait for the body shop to open to restore power,” the report said. “Harris stated the breaker and the fuses ‘popped’ a few days prior to the fire.”

The interviews with firefighters, paramedics and survivors show that most were initially unaware of how many people were trapped inside, as The Chronicle previously reported. No one gathered outside “seemed overly excited or distraught,” the report said, and firefighters called into the building “for a response from people possibly inside but got no answer.”

By the time firefighters entered the warehouse the next morning, the second floor in the back of the warehouse had collapsed.

Although investigators ruled out propane and natural gas as heat sources, everything from candles and incense to cigarettes and electrical failure were possible, the report said. Even an open flame, set “intentionally or carelessly,” couldn’t be eliminated as the potential ignition source. No one who may have witnessed the incipient stage of the fire could be located, the report said.

Copyright 2017 San Francisco Chronicle