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2 Arrested for Deadly CA Fire

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

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Two men have been charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the Dec. 2 fire at the “Ghost Ship” warehouse in Oakland, California.

Prosecutors say that property manager and lead tenant Derick Ion Almena and “creative director” Max Harris created “a fire trap” on that night in December when nearly 100 people crammed into the space for a concert.

The Space

Almena rented out the space from owner Chor Nar Siu Ng and had completed a series of unregulated construction projects in order to sublet different spaces—including campers parked in the warehouse’s first floor—to artists and other tenants.

He then encouraged the residents to decorate with unconventional items, filling the space “floor to ceiling” with items like tapestries, furniture and pianos.

The Los Angeles Times cited an old Craigslist ad in which Almena and his partner, Micah Allison, described the space as a “hybrid museum, sunken pirate ship, shingled funhouse, and guerrilla gallery.”

The warehouse was reportedly not zoned for residential use and public records show that the warehouse had been subject to at least 10 code enforcement complaints and that city officials had visited the site as recent as that November but never actually went inside the building.

The Fire

The court documents allege that while Harris was preparing for the second-floor concert, he knowingly blocked off access to one of two staircases to the only exits of the building.

The remaining staircase was reportedly partially constructed of wooden pallets that concert-goers were forced to navigate in the dark as the power went out shortly after the fire began. There were also no smoke alarms or sprinklers installed in the building. Reports say that the 36 people that did not make it out of the building all died of smoke inhalation.

Authorities still, however, cannot determine the exact cause of the fire and have said they probably will never be able to know exactly. Investigators have narrowed the origin to a shared kitchen in the back of the building’s first floor.

The Charges

Almena, 47, was booked Monday (June 5) in the Santa Rita Jail with bail set at $1.8 million. He is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday (June 8). Harris is being extradited from Los Angeles, where he was booked in the county jail with bail also set at $1.8 million.

If convicted, the men could face a maximum of 39 years in prison.

Almena’s attorneys—Jeffry Krasnoff, Kyndra Miller and J. Tony Serra—releases a statement saying that the officials who had the power to shut the place down but failed to do so are the real ones to blame for the fire.

"We believe that these charges represent no less than a miscarriage of justice, and we are confident that this attempt to make a scapegoat out of our client will fail,” the attorneys said in a statement.

It is unclear whether Harris has representation, according to the Times.

Though officials have not said whether additional people will face charges (such as the building’s owner, Ng), there are multiple civil lawsuits in the works filed by families of the victims against Ng, promoters of the event, performers at the event, the city of Oakland, Alameda County and the state of California.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Fatalities; Fire; Good Technical Practice; Health and safety; North America; Safety

Comment from Jesse Melton, (6/7/2017, 7:30 AM)

Arresting some people won't stop this kind of thing. The underground concert scene and urban colony movement is just getting bigger. I don't know where authorities and safety pundits expect these people to go. They can't afford conventional housing and they enjoy entertainment as much as the next person.

The NFPA had a lot of commentary about this event and the costs of compliance with fire codes ran anywhere from $250k - $750k. Which is preposterously expensive.

Safety people and mob extortionists have the same model. Box people in then force them to come up with huge sums of money. And both groups keep coming back for more money.

I don't understand how the safety people can sleep at night. They know what they're doing and they know that tragedies like this are good for them. It sucks that people have to die just for being unable to pay $150k for sprinkler systems.

Comment from John Fauth, (6/7/2017, 8:15 AM)

That's an interesting take. I would have thought those people died because a proprietor was willing to knowingly ignore safety regulations in order to make a buck. And I'd be willing to bet if he wore a suit and had a Main Street office, you might believe he was the villain, rather than a victim.

Comment from Jesse Melton, (6/8/2017, 12:29 PM)

The most well dressed people who had been there this century were from two companies that provided estimates for fire and earthquake safety.

I don't see any villain in this story. But I do think the safety industry, and especially the fire safety industry, are more than willing to put a price tag on people's lives. While I'm sure they don't hope for events like this to occur, the loudest voices are always from the safety industry and they're using it to lobby for tighter enforcement of regulations, almost entirely based around requiring purchasing products and services from industry vendors.

Go look into it yourself. The NFPA site is filled with angry vendors and politicians complaining how these deaths were a matter of money.

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