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The Ghost Ship No More

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

Oakland ghost ship fire

Above: The Ghost Ship, the Oakland performance space and group house where thirty-six people were killed in a fire on the night of December 2nd. Previously infamous as the place where Johannes Mehserle, a white transit officer, shot Oscar Grant, a young black man, on New Year’s Day in 2009.

A fixture of the neighborhood of Fruitvale, the warehouse dubbed "the Ghost Ship" was first constructed in 1930, according to county records. It sat amid factories, mills and beer gardens established by the neighborhood’s many immigrants.

Its master tenant Derick Ion Almena reimagined the ten-thousand-square-foot warehouse as “a 24 hour creation space." It was meant to be a refuge and a platform for artistic people who could not get a foothold in the creative economy—people for whom it was true that, as Almena said, “you can’t pay your rent because your dream is bigger than your pocketbook.”

Oakland’s housing crisis has spurred people across the city to live in unsafe places. The Ghost Ship illegally housed musicians, jewelry makers and others. It also grew to include complex vines of electrical cords, and power failures became a frequent problem.

The Deadly Fire

Almena was illegally subleasing the space for events like the party on Dec. 2. All but one of the people who died in the fire were attending the party on the second floor, a part of the building that was particularly difficult to escape from. Upstairs in the dance area, a resident named Aaron Marin saw flames licking up from behind the D.J. booth. Alarmed, he turned to the point of entry — the wooden staircase — which was blocked by confused partygoers.

Inside the Ghost Ship warehouse after the victims were recovered. The remains of an R.V. were among the rubble.

A Father’s Question

It would be a week before Mike Madden learned that his son, Griffin, had died in the fire. He called the coroner’s office, which told him that Griffin’s remains had been found.

He lays some of the responsibility for the disaster on Mr. Almena and on the building's neglectful owner. But ultimately, he said, he thinks the city should have done more to protect his son and others.

“I believe if people had been doing their jobs, this would have never happened,” he said. “It’s not an accident or a mistake. People weren’t doing their jobs.”

The local fire department had not inspected the premises in over three decades.

NBC News called the interview with Almena “rambling,” which it was. Even more obviously, though, Almena was struggling with the sheer weight of what has happened. Almena allowed many people into his dilapidated house for a party, and thirty-six of them died. To answer questions about building codes seemed both necessary and at the same time ridiculous. “I’d rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents,” Almena said. “I’d rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions. I’m so sorry. I’m incredibly sorry.”


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