In the days following the devastating Oakland warehouse fire that claimed dozens of lives, our immediate reaction is to grieve for the tragic loss of life and reach out to help the families of those who died. Soon though, anger comes into the mix. And unanswered questions about what, and who is responsible for the fire in the Ghost Ship Art Collective warehouse create only additional confusion and pain.
Why did this happen? Who is responsible?
The answer to where the spark came that caused the Oakland warehouse fire awaits the outcome of a thorough fire investigation, and may lead to criminal charges. But in the meantime, there are some obvious culprits that allowed the warehouse to become an environment where the fire could grow with such speed and deadly effect. Those culprits include the owner of the building, Chor Ng; the person leasing the building, Derick Ion Almena; the party promoters, sponsors, and production companies, including "100% Silk;" as well as the City of Oakland, itself. Legally, each has significant liability.
This property was zoned as a warehouse, not as a workspace for artists and musicians and not as a live/work space. The requirements for construction, fire safety, alarms, and exits are all quite different for property that is zoned and permitted for people to live in and work in. This fire shows us why. The lack of alarms, the lack of proper interior stair cases, exits, and fire exits all played significant roles in the loss of life.
The Owner, Leaseholder, Party Promoters, and the City of Oakland All Likely Bear Responsibility In-Part for the Fire
Under California law the owner of a property bears the primary responsibility for ensuring that the property is used according to what it is zoned for. Ms. Ng, the owner, had received prior citations from the City about her properties. She had a clear responsibility to know that the Ghost Ship Art Collective was living and working in her property. She then had an obligation to either stop the use or upgrade her building and apply for zoning changes so that the property could operate as a live/work space. She failed to do this and ignored her obligations as a landlord, and as a result people died.
The person leasing the property, Mr. Ion Almena, also has clear responsibility. The space is clearly unsuitable and not zoned for the manner in which he operated it. Mr. Almena collected rent from the artists living in the warehouse but failed to use that money to make the property safe. Why didn't this Oakland warehouse have adequate fire safety systems? Because, Mr. Almena failed to operate the Ghost Ship Warehouse safely: He provided only rickety makeshift stairs; failed to maintain, or install, smoke detectors; stored vehicles trash and other highly flammable items in the warehouse, and filled up the space with an unsafe number of people, all contrary to fire code.
The party promoters, sponsors, and production companies, including "100% Silk" are also responsible for this tragedy. They knew about the condition of the warehouse but chose to promote the party without obtaining a permit or ensuring the safety of the attendees.
Finally, the City of Oakland bears a heavy burden of responsibility here. There were numerous prior complaints about the Ghost Ship property and it was common knowledge that the warehouse was being operated as an artist-musician collective work and living space. The City had the power and the responsibility to shut down the unsafe condition and protect the tenants. Oakland completely failed in its duty-apparently, City inspectors did no more than knock on the door and leave.
The Answer to Our Community's Pain: Justice
Our legal system is well equipped to sort this out, and to lay responsibility where it belongs. A jury ultimately decides the degree of responsibility that each party bears. And that is as it should be in this case.
A jury should, and must, find the liability which each Ms. Ng, Mr. Almena, the party promoters, sponsors, and production companies, including "100% Silk", the City, and maybe others, bear in this tragedy. The loss, our sorrow, and anger which our community suffers, as well as the significant questions which remain unsolved in the Ghost Ship fire, must be answered by swift justice.