By MATTHIAS GAFNI | firstname.lastname@example.org, DAVID DEBOLT | email@example.com, AARON DAVIS | firstname.lastname@example.org and THOMAS PEELE | email@example.com | Bay Area News Group
OAKLAND — Two years before 36 partygoers died in the Ghost Ship warehouse inferno, Oakland firefighters toured the cluttered firetrap, even dancing in the same second-story performance space where the victims would huddle in their final moments, according to witnesses and documents.
The visits started Sept. 26, 2014, a Friday, when firefighters extinguished a couch fire outside the warehouse artists’ collective on 31st Avenue before touring the eclectic interior, people who saw them inside the building said. One firefighter called it a “museum” and stopped to play one of the many pianos scattered around the space cluttered with wood and furniture stacked to the ceilings. Another firefighter told master tenant Derick Almena that as long as there were marked fire exits, they’d be OK, a resident who overheard the conversation told this newspaper.
The next day, firefighters returned — twice — hanging out for hours inside the warehouse as a private party with live bands raged upstairs and chefs roasted a pig outside, multiple attendees said.
Several illegal living spaces had been created within the warehouse, and during those two days it was “completely packed with stuff,” said people who were there that weekend. Firefighters would have seen the clutter and a maze of small passageways carved from it on the warehouse’s ground floor, a spider web of extension cords and the now-infamous makeshift staircase cobbled together from wooden pallets that led to the upstairs’ performance space.
The power went out in the middle of the party as a band jammed on stage. Almena hurriedly repaired the electrical wiring — the same overloaded, makeshift system that sources say started the deadly Dec. 2 fire.
The stunning revelations are the most disturbing indications so far that city employees knew of the Ghost Ship’s troubling infrastructure and illegal parties years before the fatal fire, but the fire department has found no records of efforts to enforce fire codes. As they raced to the Dec. 2 blaze, firefighters have said they talked among themselves about the warehouse having safety issues and what they might face when they arrived. Documents show police were alerted to people living inside the warehouse illegally, as well as holding an “illegal rave,” and building inspectors were investigating illegal structures inside the space in the weeks before the deadly fire.
The firefighters who apparently attended the 2014 party never reported their concerns, or made sure the building was inspected. Told Wednesday of this newspaper’s findings, acting fire Chief Mark Hoffmann said he would open an immediate investigation.
“I am saddened to hear this,” he said. “I can’t defend their actions.”
Robert Rowe, a retired city of Downey fire marshal in Los Angeles County who is now a fire consultant, agreed with Hoffman’s assessment. Firefighters “are the eyes of the department,” he said. He would expect an immediate call to the city fire marshal with firefighters remaining on scene until an inspector arrived. That they didn’t is “a problem that obviously needs to change,” he said.
The names of the firefighters who attended the party are not known. It is unclear if they were from nearby Station 13 or another station. They were wearing department T-shirts — the standard garb of working firefighters — and apparently on duty, witnesses said. But city records show that on that day, a mostly different crew was working from the one that doused the couch fire the morning before. One firefighter listed as working both shifts declined to speak with reporters who went to his home. Others didn’t respond to repeated messages.
For weeks, this newspaper interviewed five eyewitnesses who saw firefighters inside the warehouse during the 2014 party, and three people who saw them inside the day before, as well as others who learned about the firefighter visits in 2014 secondhand. It also reviewed police and fire records from the 48-hour period placing firefighters at the scene and providing the clearest picture of what happened on a wild weekend at Ghost Ship.
It was a busy night shift for the firefighters of Station 13.
Early in the morning of Sept. 26, 2014, the crew jumped from fire to fire — five suspicious blazes over a three-hour period in the East Oakland neighborhood, the work of an arsonist. Around 6 a.m., as the firefighters drove back to their station — located around the corner from Ghost Ship — they noticed a couch burning outside the warehouse on 31st Avenue and extinguished it, according to a report on the incident.
The suspicious blaze brought to the scene arson investigator Maria Sabatini, where she met with master tenant Almena, according to a report written by police Officer Michael Erickson, who was also there. In a recent phone interview, Sabatini, recently promoted to acting assistant fire marshal, said she did not enter the warehouse during her investigation.
But three eyewitnesses — Ghost Ship residents Libby Physh, Joe Rodriguez and Micah Allison, Almena’s wife — told this news organization firefighters went inside that morning. Rodriguez said one used a phone to take pictures of the interior artwork. Allison recalled one woman firefighter walking around the first floor, stopping to cross herself at a picture of Jesus and playing one of the pianos. They could not recall their names.
“I’m so glad we were able to save this space,” Allison remembers her saying. It was “like a museum.”
“I remember being really happy,” Allison said. “They were on our side, and we had been nervous because, well, we were artists.”
Physh recalled a male fire department employee talking to Almena, telling him that “as long as there are marked exits, they are good.”
“He said it was an amazing space,” Physh said.
Troy Altieri, a handyman at the warehouse, said that as the firefighters were leaving, Almena told them of a party happening the next day and invited them to come.
A.J. Magnuson had been planning a bash with great food and five bands to help open his friend’s new microbrewery, but the restaurant was not ready in time and two days before the party — with dozens of tickets at $35 a pop sold already — he scrambled to find a new venue.
Someone recommended a warehouse space in the Fruitvale district, near a studio that produces Burning Man installations. He went there Thursday night, hours before the couch fire, to meet Almena.
“When I first got down to the place, it was hoarded with junk up to the ceiling,” Magnuson said. “Derick said they had parties there all the time, and they’ll have the place cleaned up.”
That never happened, and two days later, on Sept. 27, 2014, Magnuson and his friends feverishly worked to clear out space themselves, making sure the back staircase, as well as the front, rickety one, were accessible for the event.
“Setting up for the party and dealing with the main guy Derick was a total nightmare,” Magnuson recalled. There was a “shady vibe” the whole day, he said, and he wondered if people lived in the warehouse.
An hour before the party’s 5 p.m. start, David Noble, a guitarist who played that night, and friends hauled a “hodgepodge of everything” from the upstairs performance space to the front sidewalk.
“The upstairs section of the warehouse was a mess,” recalled Noble. “Hardly any room to walk around, let alone throw a party.”
As Noble placed bed frames and scrap wood onto the curb, an Oakland fire truck pulled up along 31st Avenue and the firefighters approached, warning them an arsonist was on the loose and the items might be targeted.
“I saw them there, but I didn’t really talk to them,” Noble said. “They talked with the owner briefly, and they seemed to know each other.”
Noble said he saw two firefighters talking to Almena and others inside the warehouse downstairs. Party attendee Walker Johnson said the downstairs, where he saw firefighters, was still “packed with stuff.”
Noble said the firefighters told organizers they would return that evening “to make sure everything was OK.”
As about 100 people filed through the warehouse, scents filled the venue from a chef roasting a pig in the adjacent vacant lot. Another chef prepared roasted squash and mushrooms for vegetarian tacos as beers from Federation Brewery were served in red solo cups.
Once the sun set, bands began playing in the upstairs performance space. Altieri said he noticed firefighters had returned to the building as they’d promised.
“They were scooting around and dancing,” he said. “At first, it was all business. Upstairs, a couple were farting around and dug it. They thought the place was amazing.”
Magnuson, who had reservations about the venue from the start, said he never saw the firefighters but heard from friends who’d seen them inside during the party, which gave him a sense of reassurance.
“We were like, ‘Cool,’ ” Magnuson said. “If there were any fire safety concerns, we didn’t have any after that.”
Johnson said he saw several firefighters inside the downstairs of the warehouse after it had gotten dark.
“They were there for at least a couple hours,” Johnson said. “It seemed like they wanted to be around and monitor things.”
Allison and Rodriguez also said they saw the firefighters inside the warehouse that night, and the party has been mentioned by Almena’s attorneys and in legal claims — precursors to lawsuits — filed by fire victims against the city. This newspaper reported in the weeks following the Dec. 2 fire that a department source said a firefighter “peeked” his head inside the building following the couch fire and phoned in dangerous conditions to fire inspectors, but nothing was done. There is no documentation of the call.
Oakland firefighters union Vice President Zac Unger said he didn’t know if firefighters entered the building either day in 2014, but he questioned whether they would hang out.
“It strikes me as unlikely that they would spend two hours there,” Unger said, adding that firefighters rarely spend that long at a scene. “We all have names on our shirts. … If they’re spending two hours there and no one knows anyone’s name, it seems unlikely.”
Magnuson and Noble’s band played third that night, hitting the stage around 9 to 10 p.m. as attendees, holding beers, listened and stood in a half-circle.
Suddenly, during their second song, the power went out. There was no panic; the drummer simply played an extended solo, and other people grabbed makeshift instruments for an impromptu jam session, they said. Almena scrambled to restore the electricity.
“He jumped next door to the auto body shop to get the power going again,” Magnuson said.
This news organization has reported how Almena, the building landlords and others knew about a suspect electrical system in the warehouse, arguing over who was responsible for improvements to the building’s electrical infrastructure. Sources have said the deadly fire was caused by an overloaded electrical system.
It’s not clear when firefighters left that night, but the private party ended around midnight, shortly after Oakland police were called to the warehouse at 11:37 p.m. on a report of loud music, according to a police report. As people left, Magnuson’s friend paid Almena $500, and they cleared out.
“It was a weird place,” Magnuson said. “We just wanted to get through the event and never come back.”
When Noble first heard of the deadly Dec. 2 fire years later, his thoughts jumped back to the 2014 party.
“It was haunting,” Noble said. “We had such a close call.”
“Of all the things that were concerning at the party, fire safety wasn’t top of mind,” Magnuson said. “It’s a worst-case scenario and probably wasn’t a high risk, but the stakes are super high.”
Johnson has visited many artist warehouses but said the Ghost Ship stood out.
“It’s so easy to not think about the real danger of a situation like that,” he said. “The real gravity doesn’t sink in. At the time, it was just a fun place to be in.”