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Unpermitted Work Eyed in Oakland Blaze

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

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Authorities in Oakland, CA, are investigating possible building code violations related to the fire that claimed at least 36 lives Friday night (Dec. 2).

The blaze broke out during a weekly electronic-music party at a converted warehouse building known as the “Ghost Ship.”

After the fire, reports emerged painting the building as a maze of artist studios and living spaces with a number of do-it-yourself, unpermitted construction and electrical updates, and insufficient fire-safety equipment.

Past Complaints

While reports indicate there had been complaints and inspections related to the building’s condition stretching back nearly 20 years, The New York Times reports that in the past two years, at least three complaints about debris and illegal construction brought officials to the warehouse, in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.

Ghost Ship fire
Janna487, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The blaze, which killed at least 36 people, broke out Friday night at a converted warehouse space known as the "Ghost Ship."

The cause of the fire is still under investigation as of Tuesday (Dec. 6), and officials are unsure whether the total death toll might still rise.

The condition of the building has reportedly hampered investigative efforts, as it did the original rescue, and the victims’ attempts to escape.

The building is reportedly owned by Chor Nar Siu Ng, and was being rented to Derick Almena and his wife, Micah Allison. It’s been widely reported that it was not permitted for residential use, nor for the kind of live-music event that was taking place at the time of the blaze. According to The New York Times, some former tenants say Almena instructed them to hide bedding and cooking equipment when the property owner visited, and told them to leave the building while she was there.

Ng reportedly owns numerous properties in and around Oakland, many of which have been subject to code violations. It’s unclear how much she knew about the condition of the Ghost Ship building.

Limited Access, Unpermitted Repairs

The only access to the building’s second floor was reportedly a wooden staircase, constructed partially of wooden pallets, making it nearly impossible to get to the upstairs during the blaze. Officials told NBC News it appeared there were no sprinklers. Another upstairs exit was boarded up, reports say; space heaters and propane tanks were onsite for heating.

Almena told NBC that he had made repairs, including electrical work, by himself because the landlord would not hire a contractor to do the work.

Inspections Questioned

The Los Angeles Times reports that, amid the complaints about the building, a code inspector went to the building at least once without actually going inside. The City Council member representing the neighborhood has questioned why the building code issues were not pursued more aggressively.

In addition, a representative of Oakland’s firefighters union has said that the fire inspection unit in the city is underfunded and understaffed. “Had a fire inspector walked into that building and seen the conditions in there, they would have shut the place down,” union vice president Zac Unger told the Los Angeles Times.

Some, including former Ghost Ship tenants, have pointed to the Bay Area’s rapidly rising rents as an impetus for such underground living spaces, of which there are reportedly many in Oakland. Artists and other tenants reportedly paid low rents to Almena to use space in the building, some even parking trailers inside the building.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s office is looking into the blaze and will determine whether charges will be filed against any of the parties responsible for the building. District Attorney Nancy O’Malley told The New York Times that, if filed, charges could range from involuntary manslaughter to murder.


Tagged categories: Building codes; Construction; Fire; Good Technical Practice; Inspection; North America; Safety

Comment from Tom Bright, (12/7/2016, 6:11 AM) Tenant Shelley Mack offered snaps and journal entries.

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