Oakland, CA – On December 2, 2016 at around 11:20 p.m. the Ghost Ship warehouse in the Fruitvale community of Oakland, California became engulfed in flames. The Ghost Ship had been illegally converted into residential units, ultimately becoming a well-known artist collective. At the time the fire broke out there was an unpermitted concert being held by 100% Silk, a popular record label.
Tragically, 36 people lost their lives in the fire, which was the deadliest ever in the city of Oakland. In fact, it was the deadliest commercial building fire in the U.S. since the nightclub fire at The Station in 2003, the deadliest fire in California since the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and the deadliest event in Oakland since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
Concertgoers desperate to escape the fire were slowed down due to a very narrow staircase, a difficult path impeded by an array of large objects and furniture.
The concert was being held in a space frequently occupied by underground musicians. At the time of the fire, the crowd was enjoying a performance by electronic musicians.
Survivors described suddenly being engulfed in a blast of heat and smoke and crawling to the only way out, which was a narrow makeshift staircase located near the dance floor.
Derick Almena, the leaseholder of the warehouse, who rented units out to others, lived in the area with his family, a wife and three kids. They happened to be staying at a hotel that night.
According to resident Carmen Brito, the front stairway was only a ramp in certain places, with two very sharp turns onto two small landings, with one she described as being a large pallet.
The Ghost Ship did have a back staircase, but no one knows if anyone used it when fleeing. If it had been used, the people wouldn’t have been anywhere near an exit.
Ms. Brito said she saw the fire starting near her loft. Fire investigators believe the fire started in the back of the warehouse.
The real question is why more people weren’t able to escape. Omar Vega, who owns the auto shop next door, said that the residents themselves built the front stairway. He said there used to be a conveyor belt in that spot when the building was actually a functioning warehouse.
No Direct Path From Stairway to Exit
People rushing down the front stairway would have found themselves in the communal living room of the warehouse, an area with no direct path to get out the front door.
To get to the front door one would have to take two sharp left turns and a right around three pianos before seeing the door and finding safety on the street.
Survivors said they were confused crawling on the floor trying to escape the thick smoke, while looking for the door. Fortunately, someone kept shouting the location of the door, which helped to save a lot of lives.
Ms. Brito described the path from the staircase to safety as being a maze. “I myself got lost the first time I tried to find my way to the door,” she said.
There were only a few interior walls in the building. Sleeping lofts and working areas were partitioned off with window sashes, furniture and pallets that one visitor described as forming a “tinderbox.”
Pianos and organs were placed all over the warehouse. Ms. Brito described how hard it was for someone who wasn’t familiar with the Ghost Ship to find the exit, even in the best of conditions. Survivors who spoke to reporters described how hard it was to navigate the twists and turns of just getting to the stairs, the difficulty getting down them and finding a way out.
A property owner can be held liable (legally responsible) for accidents, injuries and deaths that befall a tenant or visitor to his or her property if it is proved that negligence on the owner’s part caused the accident, injury or death.
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(Source: New York Times)
Published on behalf of O'Connor, Runckel & O'Malley LLP