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The Ghost Ship Fire

The embers were still warm the morning of December third of last year when phones lit up in law offices all over the Bay Area. The race was on to pin blame on somebody or something for the fire the night before at Oakland’s two-story Ghost Ship warehouse/turned artist cooperative, a 4,000-square-foot building full of hand-built spaces tailored for musicians and artists.

The fire ripped through a labyrinth of cubbies filled with paint, sculptures, rugs, furniture, candles, and other flammable materials, killing 36 people who were there for an electric dance party. Survivors described the gruesome carnage as people trapped inside scattered in all directions in their panic to get out of the former milk bottling plant as stairways and walls collapsed around them.

So who’s around to take the rap for this tragedy, one of the Bay Area’s largest fatal fires in decades? First off, there’s the building’s owner. The Ghost Ship is part of Choi Ng’s $5 million Oakland real estate portfolio. She is by all accounts a “hands off” owner (dare we say slumlord?) who showed up once a month in her white Mercedes to collect the rent check. Ng apparently delegated many details of managing her properties to her son Kai and her daughter Eva, including dealing with their tenants. She has been unsurprisingly elusive since the fire, refusing all media questions. Her son Kai, however, is quoted in an email to the tenant the year before stating that “The lack of electrical infrastructure was made very clear before your lease began.” (Really? We told you that you were leasing an unsafe space??) Kai also reportedly received an email from a subtenant just two months before the fire warning of “overexertion” on the building’s electrical system, a concern that was apparently disregarded.

One of dozens of legal analysts quoted in news reports of the fire’s aftermath said that these alleged revelations of what the Ngs might have known could both strengthen a manslaughter charge against them or even make second degree murder charges possible. The Ngs have retained legal counsel.

Next there’s the official tenant: Derick Almena, who illegally ran the day-to-day operation and took his wife and children to a local hotel the night of the fire to get away from all the noise. Almena’s name is on the lease. Then there’s the hapless Max Harris, a subtenant himself, who reportedly acted as some kind of unofficial liaison between Almena and the building owners and “greeted” partygoers on the night of the fire, whatever that means.

At the time of this writing these two men are the only ones who have been criminally charged. If convicted of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, each faces up to 39 years in prison. In announcing the charges on June 5, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said that the two men were reckless and created a risk of death, adding piously that “We continue to mourn the loss of the 36 young vibrant men and women…who should be with us today.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff, doubtless breathing a sigh of relief that blame was directed away from the city, quickly jumped on the bandwagon with O’Malley in putting the blame squarely on these two guys. Their arraignment on the charges was televised. Shorn of his ear tunnel plugs and necklaces, Max Harris almost looked as if he didn’t quite understand how in the world he had landed there.

Derick Almena, Max Harris

It’s as American as apple pie to go after the easy win in the blame game. Remember Fabrice Tourre? Didn’t think so. Tourre is the former Goldman Sachs trader and the ONLY one found liable for anything in the 2008 financial crisis. CEOs? Nada. Managing partners? Not a chance. The Securities and Exchange Commission had to go down, way, way down the food chain to officially assign blame to even one person – a lowly trader who unfortunately for him wrote a flamboyant email about himself.

The Ghost Ship fire is following in the well-worn footsteps of that all-American tradition. If I bet, which I don’t, I’d wager that even a majority of Republicans would agree that our government plays an outsized role in our overall physical safety. That’s why there are building sprinklers, laws about how to build bridges, high rises, and a million other things. So where were all these protectors of our health and safety when an old, decrepit warehouse tapped into an inadequate electricity source from the building next door, never bothered to get a permit for events, wasn’t supposed to have any tenants in the first place, and then kept right on truckin’ for years up to the night of the fire? That’s the real question, and there are powerful forces afoot to deflect the blame, shamefully even those in the government charged with protecting us.

There’s the utility, in this case PG&E, which, according to media reports, didn’t upgrade transformers in the area. There are the occupants of the next-door building, which provided the Ghost Ship’s electricity that could very well have started the fire. There’s the Oakland Fire Department, which could have easily determined, just by looking at the building, that the place was a firetrap and in extreme disrepair. There’s the Oakland Police Department, which reportedly received more than 30 citizen complaints yet did nothing about any of them. Finally, what about Oakland’s building inspectors? As recently as mid-November, city inspectors confirmed that on two occasions they went to inspect the building but couldn’t get in.

Really? Then there’s the city’s cry-me-a-river complaints about tight budgets and cutbacks that have thinned the ranks of city inspectors. Oakland real estate prices have nearly doubled in recent years, and business is booming. It’s hard to swallow the city’s official whine that there’s not enough public money to spend on our basic safety, surely the city’s most crucial expenditure. In any event there appears to be enough cash in the budget to pay the city’s many attorneys, who are doubtless burning the midnight oil in their efforts to prove that two men, the lease holder and a penniless subtenant, are really the ones to blame for all the ways in which our government failed to protect us.


  1. Mike Madden July 5, 2017

    Thank you for this thoughtful, insightful and completely accurate assessment of this senseless tragedy.
    Michael Madden, father of Griffin Sean Madden 1993-12/2/16

  2. Pat Kittle July 5, 2017

    Wow, plenty of blame to go around…

    …except for the tenants, who doubtlessly had not knowingly violated those codes, regulations, warning labels, laws, & basic common sense.

  3. Deplorable Check July 6, 2017

    The author of this article might want to dig deeper into Mayor Libby Schaaf’s campaign promises, and who was supporting her. The policy of tolerating illegally converted warehouses probably didn’t arise without some words being said, some promises being made.

    Also, her campaign finance manager was John Protopappas, known as Oakland’s Lone Builder. John’s company collected rent at an illegal conversion that sounds like a real “Ghost Ship” situation. One tenant built a multi-level loft and was subletting!

    Dig into this. Dig into the promises made, the defacto policy of “look the other way” which was implemented… and no other warehouse sucked up as much “look the other way” as the Ghost Ship.

  4. Larry Livermore July 7, 2017

    Plenty of blame to go around, and Oakland, which is run more like a Third World fiefdom than a modern American city, is far from exempt.

    However, the tenants, as well as the subculture they represent, can’t have it both ways. For years they were like, “Stay out of our autonomous spaces, we don’t need your bureaucracy and your rules,” turning away any visits from fire inspectors or police. At which point, the City of Oakland, to its everlasting discredit, shrugged its collective shoulders, saying in effect, “Well, they won’t let us in, what can we do?” (I’ve had enough personal experience with the authorities of more rationally run jurisdictions to know there is plenty they can do, but never mind that…)

    Ultimately, though, you’ve got a bunch of self-proclaimed anarchists and rebels claiming that they don’t need the protections of government and the law, until, the minute something goes horribly wrong, they begin wailing, “Why didn’t the government protect us?” Given the ubiquitous and nearly institutionalized disregard for rules, regulations, and the law in Mendocino County (the whole Emerald Triangle, really) there may be some lessons to be learned here.

  5. Rick Weddle July 9, 2017

    re: ‘…nearly institutionalized disregard for rules, regulations, and the law…’… When the Public experience of the Law is daily illustrated and reinforced by the commercial weaponizing of the Law, itself, you ARE lawless. If the Law is to be respected, it has to EARN said respect in fact, in practice, on the street and on the bench. When it doesn’t, we get Trumped, and worse. You’re now in a country where the weapons of the military have been taken up by local Peace officers AGAINST peacefully assembled, UNARMED Human citizens, gassing, firing upon and maiming People with no reckoning…AGAIN. In this circumstance of armed assault by officials on People – Disturbing the Peace – the People are encouraged to take all this in a compliant, sitting, or fully supine position. Like Trumpty, the Law will get the respect it earns. A national popularity contest defined by ‘Good TV’ is not the same thing, thank God and all Her little helpers.

  6. Larry Livermore July 9, 2017

    Well, we do live in a country where both the police and the not-police seem to have gone completely gun-crazy, and the predictable result of that is a never-ending arms race in which there can be no winners. In most civilized countries, neither police nor citizens have to fear for their lives to anywhere near the extent they do in this one. Even – or perhaps especially – in China, which is widely reviled as a “police state,” most of the police don’t carry guns, seldom wear body armor or other protective gear, and seem to be generally well regarded by the citizens, who often stop to chat with them (or yell at them, will little fear of adverse consequences, when they’re unhappy about something). Of course there is no Second Amendment in China, a fact which might give the heebie-jeebies to testosterone-overloaded Americans who are terrified to go to the corner store without packing serious heat, which means virtually no private citizens own weapons, and oh, by the way, at least in the big cities, violent crime is almost unheard of. Most of Western Europe, where guns are also strictly controlled or limited, falls somewhere in between the American and Chinese extremes when it comes to both safety and police-citizen relations. But to return to the point: if the USA is a terrifying police state, as you seem to believe, it wasn’t only the police who made it that way.

    • George Hollister July 9, 2017

      “in China, which is widely reviled as a “police state,” most of the police don’t carry guns, seldom wear body armor or other protective gear, and seem to be generally well regarded by the citizens”

      Larry, just remember, Mao killed 65 million Chinese while attempting to make everyone think and act alike. Would this have happened if the Chinese citizens had been armed?

      • LouisBedrock July 10, 2017

        More nonsense from the Master of Fairy-Tales:

        “Over the last 25 years the reputation of Mao Zedong has been seriously undermined by ever more extreme estimates of the numbers of deaths he was supposedly responsible for. In his lifetime, Mao Zedong was hugely respected for the way that his socialist policies improved the welfare of the Chinese people, slashing the level of poverty and hunger in China and providing free health care and education. …

        U.S. demographers have tried to use death rate evidence and other demographic evidence from official Chinese sources to prove the hypothesis that there was a “massive death toll” in the Great Leap Forward (i.e. a hypothesis that the “largest famine of all time” or “one of the largest famines of all time” took place during the Great Leap Forward). However, inconsistencies in the evidence and overall doubts about the source of their evidence undermine this “massive death toll” hypothesis. …

        Official Chinese sources, released after Mao’s death, suggest that 16.5 million people died in the Great Leap Forward. These figures were released during an ideological campaign by the government of Deng Xiaoping against the legacy of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. However, there seems to be no way of independently, authenticating these figures due to the great mystery about how they were gathered and preserved for twenty years before being released to the general public. American researchers managed to increase this figure to around 30 million by combining the Chinese evidence with extrapolations of their own from China’s censuses in 1953 and 1964. Recently, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their book Mao: the Unknown Story reported 70 million killed by Mao, including 38 million in the Great Leap Forward.

        Western writers on the subject have taken a completely disproportionate view of the period, mesmerized, as they are, by massive death toll figures from dubious sources. …

        The idea that “Mao was responsible for genocide” has been used as a springboard to rubbish everything that the Chinese people achieved during Mao’s rule. However, even someone like the demographer Judith Banister, one of the most prominent advocates of the “massive death toll” hypothesis has to admit the successes of the Mao era. She writes how in 1973-5 life expectancy in China was higher than in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and many countries in Latin America 1. In 1981 she co-wrote an article where she described the People’s Republic of China as a ‘super-achiever’ in terms of mortality reduction, with life expectancy increasing by approximately 1.5 years per calendar year since the start of communist rule in 1949 2. Life expectancy increased from 35 in 1949 to 65 in the 1970s when Mao’s rule came to an end. 3…”

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