‘Like a huge fireplace’: Calif. officer voiced concerns about Ghost Ship
"One spark ... one spark and (it would be) real bad," Officer Moises Polanco said to Officer Jonathan Low, who questioned whether the structure was stable
By Kimberly Veklerov
San Francisco Chronicle
OAKLAND, Calif. — An Oakland police officer who visited the Ghost Ship warehouse a year before it burned told his partner that he feared what "one spark" would do to the art collective that he likened to "a huge fireplace."
That's according to the latest court documents filed in the lawsuit by families of victims who contend the city, Alameda County, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., warehouse owner Chor Ng and dozens of others should be held liable for the fire that killed 36 party guests on Dec. 2, 2016.
"One spark ... one spark and (it would be) real bad," Officer Moises Polanco said to Officer Jonathan Low, who questioned whether the structure was stable after the pair climbed a makeshift staircase to the second floor, according to the amended complaint. "It's like a huge fireplace ... I would be worried about all the electrical wires ... Wow."
Fire investigators were not able to determine a cause of the inferno, but Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini said it was likely an electrical failure. Her assessment came during testimony in a preliminary hearing against ex-tenants Derick Almena and Max Harris, who have been ordered to stand trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter.
The conversation between Polanco and Low came to light as attorneys for the victims sifted through police body-camera footage as part of the separate civil litigation. They noted it in a 251-page amended complaint filed last month in Alameda County Superior Court.
The officers were there in response to a property dispute, according to the filing. A tenant was moving out and had asked them to stand by while he removed his personal items. Low, who had been called to the warehouse before, and Polanco entered the building to evaluate the status of the move-out and ascended the jerry-rigged staircase, where their conversation took place.
The comments are one piece of evidence the attorneys plan to use in court to show city employees knew about the dangers inside the warehouse but failed to act. The parties are due back for a status hearing next month.
A timeline compiled for the latest complaint shows that more than two dozen police officers and firefighters had stepped foot on the warehouse premises in the two years before the fire.
One of them was Fire Captain George Freelen, who said during the preliminary hearing he had concerns in 2014 about the "high fire load" of material stocked inside the artist collective. He said he sent a one-page report to the Fire Prevention Bureau to get clarity on what the building was allowed to be used for. Freelen said he never heard back, and didn't follow up.
On other occasions, officers said they had been called to the warehouse for child-protective issues or fights between residents. A group of them in 2015 went through the building to help a DJ retrieve music equipment and "observed flammable, combustible materials and unsafe conditions throughout the facility," the complaint says.
"It goes along with what we've been saying since day one. City police and firefighters were in the building, knew people were living there, knew it was being run as a nightclub venue and knew the building was not permitted for such activities," said attorney Bobby Thompson, representing a dozen of the families whose children died in the fire. "Numerous people at the city knew it was wrong, knew it was dangerous, knew people shouldn't be living there, and they did nothing. And they had a legal mandatory duty to do something."
A spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department referred questions Thursday to the city attorney's office. Alex Katz, a spokesman for the office, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
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