'I Offered to Bring Fire Extinguishers': A History of Fire Safety Anxiety at Oakland's Ghost Ship Venue

Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, Calif.
Ali Winston

Firefighters are seen near the site of a the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, Calif. 

Asa and Colin Dodsworth were late. The two brothers, thirty-something Berkeley natives who are longtime fixtures in the East Bay's underground art and party scene, had meant to leave Asa's house in West Berkeley for a warehouse party in East Oakland before midnight. However, an argument with the mother of Asa's child held the pair up. When they finally got on the freeway around 2 AM, Asa turned to his younger brother and said, “the place we're going is a tinderbox.”

His words would prove prophetic. The party they were headed to was at the Ghost Ship on 31st Avenue and International Boulevard, a 9,900 square foot outpost of Burner culture in East Oakland's heavily working class and Latino Fruitvale District. By the time they arrived, the building had been burning for hours after an electrical fire broke out among kitchen appliances in an illegal living space at the back of the warehouse.

According to people who had spent time in the warehouse, the building siphoned power from neighboring properties, with exposed and overloaded electrical wiring running through the structure. Ghost Ship, which had been run by Derick “Ion” Almena, 46, and his wife Micah Allison since 2012, was packed full of ornate East Asian wood furniture, defunct pianos and organs, rugs, drapes and illegally partitioned into separate living quarters. A narrow staircase made from wooden pallets led up to a second story, where dozens of people danced to electronic music spun by local DJ Johnny Igaz.

As the electrical fire ignited, the lights went out, thick smoke billowed up to the second floor and the Ghost Ship went up like kindling. By the time firefighters from Station 13, merely a block away, pulled up to the warehouse, the blaze was already raging. Only a handful of people reportedly made it out of the building. 36 partygoers perished in the blaze, making it the deadliest fire in the city's history, outstripping even the catastrophic Oakland Hills fire in 1991 that killed 25 people. Among the dead were several figures from the city's close-knit music, art and transgender communities. The tragedy has rocked this city of 400,000 people, which has long struggled with gun violence, and is now in the throes of a housing and gentrification crisis driven by San Francisco's tech boom.

“There weren't many survivors: people either made it out, or they didn't make it out,” said Sergeant Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department on Saturday morning in front of the smoldering warehouse.

However, interviews and city records indicate that city agencies aware of complaints about Ghost Ship and Almena and had taken police reports and code complaints about the property. Two complaints about trash and illegal habitation had been filed as recently as mid November, and a city inspector had attempted to conduct an inspection of the warehouse on November 14th, but was turned around when no one answered the door. The Oakland firefighter's union has told multiple local media outlets that the fire department's inspection database is so flawed that the Ghost Ship building isn't even listed in the city's database.

Not only that, people had warned Almena about the serious risk of fire at the Ghost Ship. Asa Dodsworth had spoken to Almena about conditions in the building during a party thrown by the S.P.A.Z. Collective at the Ghost Ship in early 2015, that resulted in a confrontation with Almena over how much money the event hosts owed him. “It was terrifying, the building's interior was if you had taken a bunch of kindling and made art out of it,” Dodsworth said, also recalling he spent half an hour trying unsuccessfully to find a secondary exit. “I offered to bring fire extinguishers to the warehouse and install them the next day, but he wasn't interested,” Dodsworth said of his interaction with Almena.

Another woman who knew Almena well, and showed up to the Ghost Ship as the fire burned to help guide firefighters through the warehouse, said she had spoken to Almena about the dangers of the property multiple times. She said she had advised him to install emergency lights, working fire extinguishers and fire escapes on the second floor, and to create a secondary exit. She said that Almena was receptive and complained that his landlord would not help them with their electricity, but he never took her up on her offer to improve fire safety on the property.

On Wednesday, the ATF announced that the building did not appear to have any fire-suppression system or alarms.

The building and the adjacent lot -- which are owned by Chor Ng, who acquired the property in 1988 and has dozens of other warehouses in Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties -- is zoned commercially, and did not change status when Almena took over the lease in 2012. Ms. Ng's daughter has told numerous media outlets that she was unaware anyone lived on the property. However, people familiar with the property said that approximately 20 people lived in the building or trailers in the adjacent lot, facts that would have been apparent during even a cursory visit to the warehouse.

A drifter and a former marijuana grower in Mendocino County, Almena had run an art gallery and community center known as “Satya Yuga” in several buildings throughout the East Bay since at least 2006. According to participants in the music festival scene who wished to remain anonymous, Almena was a regular at gatherings like Symbiosis, where he would hire people to set up Satya Yuga “altars,” composed of the same ornate East Asian furniture that packed the Ghost Ship warehouse.
Almena, his wife and three children were not on the property that night. Two days after the fire, he was interviewed by local TV station KGO at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Oakland. “They’re my children. They’re my friends. They’re my family. They’re my loves. They’re my future. What else do I have to say?” Almena told a reporter. He and his landlord, Chor Ng, are the targets of a criminal investigation by Alameda District Attorney Nancy O'Malley.

In the aftermath, there have been calls by city officials and local businesses to crack down on the untold number of live/work warehouses that have proliferated in Oakland's post-industrial flatlands over the past two decades. Some of those spaces that were more safety-conscious and once hosted events like Friday's fatal party -- like the LoBot gallery, Otherworld and Ghost Town Gallery -- have been evicted, and replaced either by new high-end developments, or tenants paying significantly more rent.

Vinnie, a long-time acquaintance of Almena and participant in the Oakland arts and festival scene, said Friday's party would have been at one of the now-shuttered venues instead of the Ghost Ship. “There is literally nowhere else to go,” Vinnie said. “We used to be at LoBot, it shut down, Otherworld shut down – every spot I've been to, that we used to throw events at, they're not there anymore.”


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