Oakland Arts Community Reels From Warehouse Fire: 'This Is a Nightmare'

The tight-knit arts community in the city of Oakland, Calif. is reeling from the three-alarm fire that broke out at a warehouse party on Friday and has so far claimed the lives of 36 people, with more casualties expected.

"This is the most deadly fire in Oakland's fire history that I'm aware of,” said Battalion Chief of Fire at City of Oakland Melinda Drayton. It’s expected to become one of the deadliest structure fires in the state, and deadliest in the U.S. in recent history, with comparisons being drawn to a 2003 nightclub fire in Warwick, R.I., that left 100 people dead.

The converted warehouse known as the Ghost Ship, located in the city's Fruitvale district, had a history of code violations and did not have permits for public events or residential living, though both took place on its premises.

Friday night's electronic-music event, headlined by 100% Silk label artist Golden Donna as part of his West Coast tour, had approximately 60 people in attendance when the fire broke out at around 11:00 or 11:15 p.m., witnesses told news outlets. Though firefighters arrived within three minutes, according to Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly, they were unable to gain access to the inside of the two-story structure. Dozens of people were trapped inside. “Floors have collapsed on top of floors. The roof collapsed,” Kelly said at a press conference. Crews worked through the weekend removing debris “bucket by bucket” with 60 percent of the site excavated as of Sunday evening.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, although the building had been investigated for safety violations and had an inadequate electrical system, witnesses told news outlets. At a press conference on Sunday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that the Alameda County District Attorney Office has been brought into the case and is working with the local law enforcement to determine whether to formally move forward with a criminal investigation.

Among the missing are artists, musicians, and community organizers who are the fabric of a culturally vibrant city struggling with a lack of affordable housing and spaces to host experimental art. Oakland is currently the fourth most expensive rental market in the U.S., according to apartment rental website Zumper’s latest National Rent Report, while neighboring San Francisco is the first.

"The Place Was Kinda Scary"

The "Ghost Ship" was founded by Derick Ion Almena (also Derick Alemany in public records), 46, the primary leaseholder at the warehouse, from which he operated the Satya Yuga collective and lived there with his family. Commenters were quick to condemn his Facebook post (since removed) the day after the fire: “Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah [his wife] were at a hotel safe and's as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and be standing now in poverty of self worth.” Several commenters replied to Almena’s post that they had personally warned him the building was unsafe.

Almena filled the warehouse with ornate, wood-carved Balinese furniture and art. He also used his collection to set up spaces at music festivals, including this year’s Symbiosis Gathering as detailed on his personal Facebook page. According to several news reports, Almena is currently on probation for a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property.

“One of the reasons the building burned down so quickly was the amount of things that were stacked from floor to ceiling, along every edge of every wall," says Nic Higuera, a musician who told Billboard he'd organized an event at Ghost Ship last year. "When you walk into a space like that, it’s enticing to see all these things -- like, 'Wow, I could explore this place for hours.' But if you looked at it during the day, it was a very different place. It was kinda scary.”

Higuera also says that people lived in the warehouse, including Almena and his family, but could not say how many residents occupied the space at the time of the fire.

According to public records, on Nov. 13 and 14, the city received complaints of blight and unpermitted interior construction at the building. Four days later, inspectors with Oakland’s Planning and Building Department attempted to enter the warehouse, but failed to gain access. The previous complaint on record, citing blight, is dated June 4, 2014. The department’s interim director Darin Ranelletti says they had also received reports that people were living in the warehouse illegally, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The warehouse is owned by Chor N. Ng, whose daughter told the Los Angeles Times they were assured multiple times that "nobody lived there" and that “it was an art collective.” Eva Ng says she believed the building had smoke detectors and two second-floor exits, but former Ghost Ship tenant Shelley Mack says the warehouse had no fire alarms or sprinklers. Oakland Fire Department Operations Chief Mark Hoffmann confirmed that the building had no sprinklers.

Sam Lefebvre, a freelance journalist and local musician with close ties to the underground art community, attended two events at Ghost Ship and called the space “rickety and improvised,” in particular the staircase that connected the first and second story. Some eyewitnesses, including Michael Rosen who wrote a first-hand account of the Friday night party for The Daily Beast, described the staircase as “constructed of wood pallets.” Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach-Reed confirmed to the Associated Press that the only second-floor exit was a stairwell of wooden pallets.

Higuera says the staircase was constructed of “flimsy, thin wood, and could only hold one to two people at a time.” He says friends who attended the event told him that the stairs collapsed as people tried to escape the fire and jumped from the second floor to the first, crawling across the smoke-filled first floor toward someone yelling “Exit!”

"People Are Devastated Beyond Compare"

The tragedy has deeply affected people beyond the local music scene. After announcing that an Oakland police department deputy lost his son in the fire, Sgt. Ray Kelly says, "I have yet to meet any type of person that this has not affected, be it the first responder community, members of the media, or people in city government.”

On Saturday, groups of people gathered across the city to share information and, as the day wore on, to mourn. At North Oakland magazine shop Issues, friends of Kiyomi Tanouye stopped by in search of updates about the former store manager, last seen doing nail art at Ghost Ship. Issues co-owner Noella Teele found out about her missing former employee and friend right as the store opened and she began preparing for its holiday party. Tanouye was expected at the store at 2 p.m. that day. “She was going to help me light the Christmas tree,” Teele says. “She was supposed to bring me a lipstick to wear.”

Tanouye, who still maintained Issues’ social media accounts after leaving her position at the store three years ago to work for Shazam, was a staple of the local music scene -- as the Music Director for Mission Creek Oakland Music and Arts Festival and for her nail art popup Underground Nail Bar.

“She was a bright, shining light. She loved music, she loved going out, she loved shows. There wasn’t a person who didn’t love her,” says Teele. “People are devastated beyond compare. People are just like ‘this is a nightmare, a bad dream.’ I was holding out hope, until it finally hit me that she’s probably gone.”

Lefebvre says he knows 15 people on the missing list. “I’m crushed thinking about Joey Casio [né Joseph Matlock]. He was far and away my favorite local artist. He was a really righteous political guy. My friend described him as a ‘luminous being,’ which I thought was perfect.”

Higuera believes he lost one of his closest friends in the fire, John Igaz, who had been DJ-ing at the event between live performances. Though Igaz is still listed as missing, Higuera says he’s privately been notified that he is one of the victims. Igaz, who performed under the name Nackt, was a resident DJ with Outpost, which regularly threw electronic parties at popular clubs such as F8 and Underground SF.

“Johnny was a very influential person in our music scene. He’s someone who was a smiling face at every party, who was about what we do for the right reasons. He was an active voice for trans, gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights. He allowed everyone around him to be who they were and not be afraid,” Higuera says. “He was one of the purest human beings I’ve ever met.”

A Bay Area native, Higuera says he speaks for many when he says that participating in multiple communal live/work spaces is both a necessity and a choice for him.

“The reason we live in places where we throw parties is because we lack access to [above-ground] spaces in the Bay Area currently. It’s gotten to the point that renting a space in a warehouse costs $2,000 to $3,000 for one night and that’s not a feasible thing for most underground music collectives. So instead we’ll pull together and rent a place and live there and throw parties in it."

He continues, "I can name 25 people right now who live in warehouse spaces and part of the reason is because they have no place else to go [due to high rents]. But the other part of it and, maybe more important, is they like living in collective spaces.”