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.
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.