Oakland City officials had many reasons to visit the Ghost Ship in the years prior to the fire that took the lives of 36 people inside the building. They were there to investigate 10 complaints of code violations, among others, according to detailed records released by the City on Wednesday.

Despite growing evidence that someone had converted the warehouse into an unlawful residence and entertainment venue, the City chose to turn a blind eye and never took any action to shutter the Ghost Ship, records reveal. A number of complaints had been submitted to the City claiming that the conditions inside the building were not safe. People had reported mounds of trash piling up and faulty wiring.

Media outlets, including The Times, requested the release of these records amid mounting criticism of Oakland’s apparent lax enforcement of codes at the Ghost Ship as well as other warehouses that have been converted into illegal residences across the city.

On December 2, 2016 the Ghost Ship was hosting a concert when the warehouse caught fire, trapping everyone in attendance and scores of other people. 

Ghost Ship Fire
Photo Courtesy SF Chronicle

In looking at the records, the fact that illegal concerts were being held there should not have come as any surprise to City officials.

Oakland police responded to a call in March 2015 that an illegal rave was going on at the Ghost Ship where drugs and alcohol were being sold. The report reveals that the police officer who responded claimed he did not issue any citations or even enter the building. Later on that same night police were called back to the scene after getting a complaint that “several people inside his warehouse were refusing to leave the premises.”

Police just stood by waiting while everyone who was not supposed to be there left, according to the heavily redacted report.

The records reveal the content of a 911 call describing the same 2015 event, which was taken by the California Highway Patrol. The caller related “as many as 15 people were barricaded inside the building,” adding “the owners are preventing people from leaving.” The caller went on to say that they heard what seemed like a Taser being used and people being threatened.

Family members of some of the victims as well as certain Oakland officials said that the records offer clear evidence that the city failed in its oversight duties.

South San Francisco resident, David Gregory, whose daughter Michela was killed in the fire said, “I’m outraged, absolutely outraged that the city did nothing all these years, which made this tragedy inevitable. They allowed it to occur. Just put yourself in my place. What if your 20-year-old son or daughter, or your niece or another loved one was there? The more you find out about what happened, the more you’re convinced that this should never have been allowed to happen.”

Noel Gallo, Oakland City Councilman whose district includes the section where the Ghost Ship was located, admitted that the documents point out where City Hall failed to respond properly to many longstanding complaints in the neighborhood about the warehouse.

“The merchants and neighbors who have been residing in the area are certainly aware of all the issues, but the City would not accept responsibility, they did not want the liability,” Gallo said on Wednesday, “What was known about the warehouse went far beyond just one city department. There weren’t just one or two times that people called in to complain.”

The City had been investigating a report of illegal housing there only two weeks before the tragedy. A code inspector was dispatched to the scene, but he said he couldn’t get into the property or even “see whether there was an illegal building from outside on the sidewalk.”

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City files show that the owner of the building, Chor N. Ng, was cited for the condition of the front yard and sidewalk.

Apparently City inspectors did not bother to assess the conditions inside the building until after the fire, according to records. Several weeks after the bodies had been removed from the warehouses’ burned husk by coroner’s officials, code enforcement inspectors went back and issued several new citations against building owner Ng.  

On December 22nd Ng was told she needed to remove the debris and repair the walls, ceiling and roof. For the very first time, she was cited for “unapproved alterations” she had made throughout the building.

“There are bedrooms created throughout the second floor and also a kitchen,” the code inspector wrote. “There are makeshift paint booths being used as toilet stalls, new partitions built for walls etc.,” he wrote.

He also reported “unsafe and exposed” wiring, electrical panels, and fixtures for which he faulted the building, according to records.

Although all the records were requested by the Media, Oakland officials only released some, saying that the others were being withheld due to the pending criminal investigation of the fire, which was among the worst in California’s modern history. The December 2nd fire happened during an unlawful concert. Many of the records that were release are heavily redacted.

The Ghost Ship and the vacant lot next door have been subjected to 10 code enforcement complaints plus 39 code enforcement inspections going back to 2004, according to City records. Inspectors from the fire department had also paid visits to the building 16 times going back to 1999, with the most recent visits in 2016.

Although City code inspectors never ventured into the warehouse, they did speak to the “tenant” once in 2014 when they went out in an attempt to get Ng and her daughter to have discarded pallets, furniture and debris removed from the sidewalk out front, as it was piling up and blocking pedestrians.

In February 2015, the City did receive an explicit complaint saying that the building had been turned into an illegal residence, according to police records. There is a transcript of a 911 call reporting a man with a shotgun was hiding somewhere near the warehouse. The caller went on to describe the Ghost Ship as “a warehouse that has been turned into an illegal shared housing facility.”

Former tenant, Shelly Mack who had a dispute with the landlord, Derick Ion Almena, claims she was the one who made that 911 call. Mack claimed in an interview that a police officer went inside the building at that time and saw the deplorable conditions in the warehouse, although that is not confirmed in the reports that were released on Wednesday.

“He came right inside and he looked around and saw everything,” she said. “The officer that came and escorted me and my son when we moved out of the warehouse a week or so later came inside too. He saw and was told everything. Whenever authorities were called to the building, they usually came inside.”

Mack openly criticized the Oakland police for not doing more.

“The police are on the front lines everyday,” she said. “Why would they not connect all these dots? There were millions of dots.”

Mayor Libby Schaaf, in releasing the reports, said that she hoped the information would help answer all the questions residents have asked about the City’s oversight and actions.

“I realize that the Media and many others have felt frustrated by how long it has taken to gather these documents from all the different departments. We wanted to cast a wide net so that all relevant information was seen. We must take a thorough look at not only the warehouse, but the adjacent properties as well,” she stated. “Transparency is a must. Our community has been severely impacted by this incident and deserves to know everything there is to know about this tragic event.”

If you have lost a loved one in an accident caused by another, you may be eligible to seek a remedy and payment. Protect your rights, contact an experienced wrongful death lawyer. The wrongful death attorneys at O’Connor, Runckel & O’Malley are well known and respected throughout the legal community and among our clients.

(Source: LA Times )

Published on behalf of O'Connor, Runckel & O'Malley LLP

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