Ghost Ship, site of deadliest Calif. single structure fire, demolished
The Oakland fire where 36 people died revealed a flawed fire inspection process
By John Woolfolk, George Avalos
Bay Area News Group
OAKLAND, Calif. — The Ghost Ship is gone.
What remained of the burned-out artist warehouse where 36 people died in California’s worst single structure fire — a tragedy that led to a criminal conviction, lawsuits, a landlord bankruptcy and fire inspection reforms — was quietly demolished this month.
The property that includes the warehouse site was acquired earlier this month by The Unity Council, a nonprofit community development organization based in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. Unity Council CEO Chris Iglesias said the organization had been working for years on acquiring the property and is considering building housing, although no final use has been determined.
“We did not take this decision lightly for sure,” Iglesias told the Bay Area News Group on Wednesday. “We’ll give this land much-needed care moving forward, the whole time being sensitive to the families. We just want to be really, really thoughtful in this process and just understand what a tragic event this was to them.”
The fire destroyed not only the Ghost Ship on 31st Avenue but also damaged the surrounding commercial buildings. On May 12, the Unity Council — officially known as the Spanish Speaking Unity Council — bought the Ghost Ship lot, an empty lot next door and another commercial building that was damaged for $2.56 million with the help of a $4.5 million loan, county records show.
Fresh foundation now sits on the grounds of the Ghost Ship. The property was sold after the former owner filed for bankruptcy to help pay a settlement in a lawsuit filed by the families of the fire victims.
In the six years since the Ghost Ship fire, those families have debated what the property should become. Some wanted a memorial, some an arts and music hall — and some wanted nothing there at all. Neighbors called it an eyesore and a painful reminder of a terrifying night.
Al Garcia, of Reed Supply Co., which overlooks the warehouse, said he’s glad it was finally razed.
“It’s just a bad memory,” Garcia said Wednesday. “I haven’t had anybody tell me they miss the Ghost Ship. It’s a good thing they got rid of it.”
Mary Alexander, who represented the families in lawsuits against the city, landlords and PG&E, said The Unity Council reached out to them and was “very sensitive — extraordinarily so — to the families and what they thought about it.” The expectation, she said, is that the site will become low-cost housing and include some type of memorial to the fire victims, which she said the victims’ families fully support.
“The families are very pleased with who bought it because they’re going to make it into low-income housing,” Alexander said. “It’s hard to imagine a better use — that’s how the Ghost Ship developed because kids couldn’t afford apartments and were living in irregular places. So they’re very pleased.”
Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo, who represents the Fruitvale District, also likes the idea.
“I think it’s the right thing, a good thing for the neighborhood,” Gallo said.
The properties had been owned by Chor Ng, her son, Kai and daughter, Eva. They had rented the Oakland warehouse — which was not permitted for housing or parties — to Derick Almena, who in turn leased the space to more than two-dozen resident artists. Surrounding commercial buildings included a shoe store, a Boost Mobile shop, an auto-body shop and upper-level apartments.
The night of Dec. 2, 2016, Almena was out in Oakland’s downtown with his family while a dance party drew dozens of revelers to the Ghost Ship warehouse. Inside was a darkened jumble of pianos and organs, lumber and a tangle of extension cords connected through a hole in the wall to a power source in the building next door.
When the fire ignited — most likely due to electrical overload, though it was never determined — it filled the warehouse with thick smoke and flames that quickly consumed a wooden stairway to the upstairs dance party, trapping many who were unable to locate a rear staircase. Some of the artists tried to extinguish the growing inferno with water bottles and a fire extinguisher, but it was no use. The dance floor collapsed in the blaze.
The fire killed one of the residents and 35 partygoers, who all perished from smoke inhalation.
[RELATED: Ghost Ship: A tragedy rooted in deceit and missed opportunity]
Almena and warehouse resident Max Harris were charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter — one for each of the victims. A jury acquitted Harris in 2019. After Almena’s trial ended in a hung jury, he pleaded guilty in 2021 to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter and served the rest of his sentence on home arrest. He and Harris have since left the city.
The tragedy exposed flaws in the city’s fire-inspection process and ushered in a crackdown on unpermitted housing. Oakland officials acknowledged that the Ghost Ship property wasn’t inspected by firefighters, despite a city fire station around the corner and frequent visits from them and the police department.
Oakland ended up paying $33 million to settle lawsuits from fire victims and their families, and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. also reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount.
Gallo said the tragedy led the city to step up fire inspections and make more fire marshals available.
“I will say that from that experience we have made a difference,” Gallo said. “That’s an ongoing challenge we have that we need to keep enforcing, making sure our properties are safe.”
There were no announcements either of the warehouse’s recent razing or the property’s acquisition by The Unity Council. Iglesias said the nonprofit wanted to be “thoughtful about how we get the word out.” Though The Unity Council is certainly considering some sort of housing use for the site, Iglesias said there are no specific plans, and they want to ensure community input on the property’s future.
“We wanted to acquire the site and start a community process,” Iglesias said. “Obviously there’s a huge need for housing in Oakland and the Bay Area in general. That is definitely something we’re looking at.”
Colleen Dolan, a San Rafael education therapist whose older daughter, Chelsea, a San Francisco electronic musician known by her stage name Cherushii, perished in the fire, said that would suit her just fine.
“Low-cost housing is absolutely the best use for that property, and I’m hoping that’s what happens,” Dolan said.
As for the ruined warehouse where her daughter spent her last moments, Dolan won’t miss it.
“It’s just as well,” Dolan said. “I’m glad it’s gone.”
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