Exactly five years ago, a fire ignited on the first floor of a 31st Avenue warehouse in Fruitvale. Residents of Satya Yuga art collective awoke to a haze of thick smoke and a fast-moving blaze. Some tried to extinguish the growing inferno with water bottles and a fire extinguisher. It was no use. The intense fire gobbled up a wooden staircase, trapping dozens of people attending an electronic dance party upstairs.
Most of the partygoers had never been to the Ghost Ship warehouse before. They didn’t know a back staircase was still intact and their only chance of survival. One man climbed out a second story window, clinging to an electrical cord until it melted, dropping him to safety outside. A woman texted her mother, “I love you. Fire.”
The Voices of Silicon Valley is hosting a Ghost Ship memorial concert tonight at 5 p.m., which can be viewed here on YouTube.
Oakland fire crews rushed to the scene. As one engine crew crested a hill overlooking the fire on International Boulevard, a firefighter in the rig leaned over and told his colleague to prepare for the worst. He had been inside the warehouse before and knew the building was a cluttered maze.
When daylight broke after a difficult and nightlong firefight, and with the warehouse still smoldering, first responders stumbled upon piles of debris inside the 10,000-square foot building. Early on the morning of Dec. 3, the Oakland fire chief reported nine people were dead and 25 missing. Families and friends gathered at a Red Cross shelter a few blocks away, awaiting news of what happened to their loved ones.
It would take days for investigators to sift through the wreckage and officially identify the victims. In the end, the death toll climbed to 36—making it the deadliest fire ever in Oakland, and one of the deadliest single-structure fires in U.S. history.
Family members of some of the victims this week told The Oaklandside their wounds are still fresh. They said this year’s anniversary is especially hard, and many do not plan on visiting the site or Oakland. While some would like to see the place turn into a memorial, others say affordable housing or a park would be appropriate.
Some of the victim’s family members including Mike Madden, who lost his son Griffin, and Lorrie Runnels, mother of Ben Runnels, called for a memorial at the site as early as 2017.
“It would be a huge mistake to desecrate the land by rebuilding or re-purposing the site. A memorial to the precious lives lost is appropriate and honestly the only solution acceptable to the families,” Lorrie Runnels said in 2017.
But not everyone agrees that a memorial should be at the site of the fire.
“I will never go back there,” Colleen Dolan, who lost her daughter Chelsea Faith Dolan, said about the Ghost Ship site. She and others have referred to the 36 victims as “our 36 stars.”
“Our 36 stars did not belong to that building. They didn’t live [there] except for one. Most of them had never been there before. The only connection is neglect, incompetence, and death,” said Dolan, referring to the the building’s master tenant, landlord, and city, who were all heavily criticized for creating or ignoring the conditions that led to the fire. “That is something we want to walk away from.”
What caused the fire?
The exact cause of the fire was never determined, although investigators said it appeared to be electrical in nature. But it was certainly fueled by the tonnage of pianos, organs, RVs, lumber and other items packed in the labyrinth-like space. There were no exit signs.
The final moments of the Ghost Ship were spent in darkness. A web of extension cords powered the space, connected to a source in the auto body shop next door through a hole in the warehouse’s wall. The fire had knocked out the power, investigators said.
Eight of the partygoers were found wrapped in a rug on the first floor. The dance floor they were standing on had collapsed. Autopsy reports later showed each of the victims died of smoke inhalation. Only one of them had lived there, along with about 25 other artists, renting from master tenant Derick Almena, who had signed a lease in November 2013 and turned a building zoned for commercial use into residences for people looking for cheaper rent as housing prices soared regionally.
The tragedy exposed flaws in the city’s fire inspection bureau, and brought a crackdown on people living in warehouses converted into housing, some not up to building codes. It led to civil lawsuits from some of the 36 victims’ families and survivors, and criminal prosecution of Almena and his right-hand man, Max Harris. They faced 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter—one count for each of the victims.
Harris was acquitted in 2019. After a hung jury and delays of a second trial in part because of the coronavirus pandemic, Almena cut a deal with prosecutors. Earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter and was allowed to serve out his sentence on home arrest. Harris and Almena have since moved away from Oakland. The city of Oakland and PG&E paid millions to the victims to settle a civil lawsuit filed by victim families and those injured in the fire.
Legal proceedings, which had been a reason for some victims’ family members to visit Oakland, are now over. And because many of the families live out of state, their only connection to Oakland is the Ghost Ship, the place where they lost a child or loved one.
All that remains, as former Ghost Ship resident Carmen Brito put it, is “this building that is just frozen in time.”
The building has become a heartbreaking eyesore, tourist attraction
Today, the warehouse looks much like it did five years ago: the walls boarded up, but exposed to the elements with its roof missing, soot fading on the painted “Ghost Ship” sign above a padlocked door partygoers had entered the night of the fire. The auto body shop next door is shuttered, as are the businesses around the corner on International Boulevard. Only the Boost mobile cell phone store is in operation.
Fruitvale native Al Garcia, who grew up on Derby Street and as a child used to play inside the warehouse when it was a dairy plant, went to the scene the December 2016 night of the fire. Garcia owns Reed Supply, a cabinet and appliance shop on Fruitvale Avenue. Out of the repair shop’s front window, he has a view of the Ghost Ship’s facade.
Since the fire, people have wandered in asking him to point out the building. Garcia says it has become a tourist attraction, with the Ghost Ship being a stop after visitors check out the mural of Oscar Grant III, near the Fruitvale BART station where a transit officer shot and killed Grant on New Years Day 2009.
Garcia called the Ghost Ship both an eyesore and heartbreaking to look at.
“It’s never ending. I’ve watched it for five years. I’m moving on. You can’t change what happened,” said Garcia.
The Ghost Ship warehouse will be up for sale soon. The Ng family, who own the Ghost Ship and all the properties that round the corner of 31st Avenue and International Boulevard, have filed for bankruptcy and agreed to sell off their real estate portfolio. The properties owned by Chor Ng, the family trust, which includes children Kai and Eva Ng, also include buildings in Oakland’s Chinatown and a laundromat in San Francisco.
Proceeds from the sale will go into a trust established for the victims, survivors and other plaintiffs in a massive lawsuit filed against the Ngs, the city of Oakland, PG&E and others, like Almena, who were dropped from the case.
Exactly what will become of the building is up to the buyer, but an attorney for the plaintiffs is hoping it will include a memorial. “Ghost Ship will be sold,” attorney Mary Alexander said. “It is important to the families to have a memorial but it’s also important that we sell the properties and get them compensated from the Ngs. So we are trying to do both.”
The bankruptcy case has reached the point where the Ngs can begin listing their properties, Alexander said. Oakland Councilmember Noel Gallo, who represents the Fruitvale District, said he’s heard developers are interested in building housing, a museum or arts center, or both.
In the years since the deadly fire, the intersection of Fruitvale Avenue and International Boulevard, just around the corner from the Ghost Ship, has undergone some changes. Red Bay Coffee opened in the three-story former Central National Bank building (after it was repaired from another fire), and AC Transit’s bus rapid transit system is now passing through.
The section of the Fruitvale District is one of 30 census tracts in Oakland designated as Opportunity Zones, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, meaning an area where developers are given incentives and tax breaks to build projects that create jobs and housing or help a stressed area.
Garcia, 67, is currently selling the Reed Supply building where he’s worked for 50-plus years, and planning to retire. He’s hoping it can be turned into much-needed affordable housing. He wants the same for the Ghost Ship property.
“Here’s a spot that in one day, they can take that place down and build affordable housing. Everyone is screaming about affordable housing,” Garcia said. “There’s no need for another restaurant, there’s no need for another laundromat, another bar, we don’t need another church, believe it or not. What we need is something good for the neighborhood.”
Moving forward, families and friends honor their loved ones
For David Gregory, stepping foot in Oakland is traumatic. Gregory and his wife, Kimberly, lost their 20-year-old daughter, Michela. She died in the arms of her boyfriend, 22-year-old Alex Vega.
“I have no desire to go to Oakland at all. I have so many bad memories there. It brings up so much anger and frustration,” said Gregory, who lives in San Mateo County. “I think a memorial wouldn’t be respected at the site of the Ghost Ship. We have our own memorial. I have my daughter’s ashes with me. That’s our memorial.”
Brito, the former warehouse resident, said she would like to see the property turned into a park. “There’s no green space in the neighborhood, nowhere people can sit and lay on the grass,” Brito said. “It should be something living.”
Colleen Dolan said this week begins an emotional rollercoaster for her and other victims’ families that she is now close to. Dolan tried to organize a large gathering for the anniversary, but the majority of the families did not want to attend.
“We are all finding quiet, private ways to get together that doesn’t feel like there will be television cameras around and people watching us cry,” Dolan said. “Rather, we will be getting together to talk about our children.”
“A lot of people have tired of our grief but we keep each other going and keep each other strong so after this dark week we can go back to our lives. We all carry our children inside of us now. That’s the only way they live on,” Dolan said.
This week, Dolan picked up Carol Cidlik from the airport. Cidlik lost her daughter Nicole Siegrist in the fire. Siegrist, in her final moments, was the one who texted her mother, “I love you. Fire.” Dolan and Cidlik plan on having lunch and dinners with the Gregorys and other families. This weekend, they will head to the Pacific Ocean to scatter some ashes.