Ghost Ship warehouse, location of a deadly 2016 fire in the Fruitvale District, where 36 people died. Credit: Amir Aziz

Nearly five years after a fire tore through the Ghost Ship warehouse and killed three dozen people, the final chapter of legal proceedings related to the tragedy is nearing its end. 

The Ng family, owners of the Fruitvale District building, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 30 and wrote in their court petition that they plan to liquidate their assets in order to pay an estimated $11.8 million to survivors and families of the 36 people who died in the Dec. 2, 2016 inferno. 

Victim families and survivors sued Chor Nar Siu Ng and her children Eva Ng and Kai Ng along with the city of Oakland, PG&E, party promoters and master tenant Derick Almena, alleging the landlord was partly responsible for the conditions that caused the fire. About 80 plaintiffs filed suit, and the filings were consolidated into one massive case. 

The proposed settlement would end the civil lawsuit. Last year, the city of Oakland settled the case, agreeing to pay $23.5 million to victim families and $9.2 million to Samuel Maxwell. Maxwell survived the fire but was badly injured. PG&E’s settlement amount, also finalized in 2020, is confidential. 

Under the Ng’s bankruptcy plan, more than half of the $11.8 million would be paid out of the family’s insurance coverage. About a dozen Ghost Ship residents who lost their homes and possessions because of the fire will also receive a share of the settlement. 

The Ng family, headed by matriarch Chor Ng, purchased the 10,000-square-foot former dairy plant in the late 1980s. The property wrapped around the intersection of 31st Avenue and International Boulevard to include, at the time of the fire, the Ghost Ship, which was a studio, events space, and living quarters, as well as an auto body shop, cell phone store and shoe shop. 

Chor Ng’s children, Kai and Eva Ng, worked as property managers of the warehouse and were also named as defendants in the lawsuit. 

The terms of the proposed settlement were negotiated by attorneys representing the Ghost Ship victims and the Ngs. Once it is finalized and approved by the bankruptcy court, the Ng’s will put $6 million in insurance money into a trust for the victims. The Ngs would be required to make another initial payment of $1 million. 

The rest, an estimated $4.8 million, would come from the proceeds of the sale of their properties, including the sale of the Ghost Ship warehouse, which has sat charred and empty for nearly five years. If the sale of the liquidating properties exceeds $4.8 million, any excess money earned from the sale would also be placed in the victims and survivors’ trust.

A San Francisco laundromat and commercial and residential properties in Oakland’s Chinatown round out the family’s real estate portfolio. The bankruptcy court will supervise the sales.

For some of the families, it wasn’t only about the money: they wanted to see the landlords held criminally responsible for the deadliest single-structure blaze in California history.

“This is the end of a long journey for these families,” said plaintiff attorney Mary Alexander. “They are disappointed that the Ngs were not held accountable criminally. As an owner of a building you have the duty to make it safe and to know what is going on in your building. Here, they claim they didn’t know and of course they did. There’s evidence they would come to the building to collect rent and do repairs.”

Although the exact cause of the fire wasn’t determined, Oakland fire officials said it appeared to be electrical in nature. Utility records showed all the Ng-owned properties on 31st Avenue and International Boulevard shared the same bill and PG&E meter.

“This is the end of a long journey for these families”

Plaintiff attorney Mary Alexander

Power flowed into the Ghost Ship warehouse through a hole cut in the wall shared by the artist collective and auto body shop. The 20-plus residents, living in a space zoned only for commercial use, used a web of extension cords to power their spaces, and the unpermitted event space on the second floor. Outages were a regular occurrence. 

According to emails obtained by the Bay Area News Group, Kai Ng knew about the shoddy electrical conditions and approved an unlicensed electrician to install a transformer in the auto body shop. In a Feb. 2015 email to master tenant Almena, the building manager wrote: “The lack of electrical infrastructure was made very clear before your lease began.” Almena co-signed the lease in November 2013.

An invoice sent from an unlicensed contractor to Kai and Eva Ng also showed they were made aware of a small electrical fire in the auto body shop in 2014. The blaze was likely caused by a “catastrophically overloading” power system, according to the invoice.

Bankruptcy attorneys representing Chor, Kai, and Eva Ng did not respond to an email sent Monday morning seeking comment. 

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office had considered criminally charging members of the Ng family, but charged only Almena and Max Harris, who collected rent from tenants and worked as the warehouse’s manager. 

The DA’s office and O’Malley have not publicly explained why the Ngs weren’t criminally charged. Unlike Almena who granted interviews with national and local TV news stations, the Ngs remained silent and refused to give depositions in the civil lawsuit. 

Alameda District Attorney Nancy O’Malley spoke rarely about the decision not to charge the landlords but said “the owner had a level of separation from what was actually happening in the building.” 

“Certainly [Kai Ng] has some civil liability,” O’Malley told the East Bay Times in April 2018

O’Malley said it was Almena and Harris who created an unsafe environment. The warehouse, if properly inspected by city officials, would have been shut down due to piles of wood, pianos, RVs and lofts and other flammable materials packed inside, where no one was allowed to live.

City records show police officers and firefighters were called to the warehouse dozens of times. Fire crews from Station 13, located about 100 yards away from the warehouse, knew Almena by name and had been inside. A day after an arson fire outside, firefighters showed up during a party and pig roast. A Station 13 fire lieutenant said he sent a letter to the OFD administration expressing his concerns about the dangerous conditions. Oakland’s fire marshal later testified he could not find the document. Another fire lieutenant attended a holiday party at the Ghost Ship for the faculty of his wife’s school, where Almena’s children attended. 

During the criminal trial, defense attorneys representing Almena and Harris attempted to shift blame to the city and the Ngs. A jury acquitted Harris, and hung on whether to convict Almena on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Almena eventually took a plea deal allowing him to serve out his sentence on home arrest and probation in Lake County, where his wife and three children moved after the fatal fire. Harris moved to Portland, Oregon after his acquittal. 

Kai Ng, in a video taken from a police officer’s body camera on the night of the fire, told an Oakland officer, “no one is supposed to be living there, it’s an artist studio … They say they spend nights there sometimes because they are (doing) projects. That’s what they tell me. I say if they are working that’s fine but you can’t live there.”

Alexander said the Ngs allowed Almena “to build it, divide it into spaces to live and put in a rickety second floor for an event space they knew or should have known was being used for parties and music events when it was not permitted for those kinds of events.” 

All but one of the people who died in the fire were visiting that night for a dance party on the second floor. 

“It was essentially an illegal cabaret and they (the Ngs) didn’t do anything to protect the public and the people who lived there,” Alexander said. 

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.