Ghost Ship Two Years Later, A Retrospective

Written by Erin Miller March 4, 2019
The People

There is a certain tension that hangs in the air at punk shows between bands’ sets. Large crowds, sometimes only one exit, down a long hallway or up a steep flight of stairs. As people shuffle out to smoke or get some fresh air, it sometimes feels like an eternity before the exit is reached. There is a quiet urgency to this process, particularly in spaces that are not explicitly structured to house shows. Basements, garages, warehouses. They fill with people looking to have access to music and art that, for a million different reasons, would be otherwise inaccessible in legal spaces. This is why we gather in sometimes precarious venues, why we file down those narrow hallways, climb up and down loose stairs—to be with the ones we love and to experience their creations. This is why, on December 2, 2016, people found themselves maneuvering through a maze of old pianos, afghan rugs, artworks, and scrap wood and climbing the staircase of wooden pallets in the now infamous Oakland warehouse venue Ghost Ship.

The fire started at around 11:20 p.m. Max Harris, a resident of Ghost Ship and often considered the de facto creative director, was working the door. He entered the building to use the bathroom when he noticed that a fire had started. In the mere seconds it took for him to run and grab the fire extinguisher from his workspace, the fire had already grown exponentially. The first 911 call was placed at 11:23 p.m. Firefighters from Oakland Fire Department Station 13, a block away from the building, arrived on scene by 11:25 p.m. In spite of their close proximity and speed, upon arrival, firefighters found the building uncontrollably ablaze. Partygoers who had made it outside watched and waited until dawn, anxiously awaiting news about friends and loved ones unaccounted for while police counted and recounted the names of the missing.

In the days following the fire, thirty-six people were confirmed dead, many of whom were artists, musicians, and makers who had vibrant and impactful presences in their communities. In the wake of such tragedies, it is easy to find ourselves asking who is to blame and why. It has been a little over two years since the fire, and there are still seemingly no answers—only fingers pointed in every direction, leaving no space for resolution for family and friends of those lost. Currently, there are two men who will be heading to trial in April: David Almena, the man whose name was on the lease for the building, and Max Harris. Both are facing charges of thirty-six counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Harris had organized the show and had prepared and decorated the space for the show; in that process, unfortunately, he also made an exit that partygoers could have escaped from inaccessible. He met Almena a few years earlier after Almena posted an ad online about a 24-hour artist space—explicitly a commercial space, not residential. However—and this is not rare with “24-hour artist spaces”—this space became home to Almena, his partner, Micah Allison, his three children, and anywhere between fifteen and twenty other people Almena had leased space to. Almena curated the space to his own liking, filling it with many wooden antiques and other flammable curios, creating an interior that was maze-like with hard to find exits. One person who attended an earlier event at Ghost Ship offered to supply them with fire extinguishers, an offer that Almena showed little interest in. Others purportedly had gone to the space and mentioned never wanting to return due to how unsafe the environment appeared. Many event bookers treated booking the space as a last resort.

The landlord of the building, Chor Ng, had help from her two children Kai and Eva Ng in managing the building. The family knew that the warehouse had become home to many people, in addition to being a venue. In spite of these newfound tenants, no actions were taken by anyone in the Ng family to bring the space up to fire code, which would have required the installation of sprinklers, fire alarms, and illuminated exit signs at a minimum. Additionally, there were reports of electrical issues within the building, something that the Ng family knew about and failed to properly fix. It is now thought that the electrical malfunctions could have been what started the fire. No one in the Ng family is being charged.

Police and fire officials had been to this location on numerous occasions. Body camera footage from years prior to the fire showed officers remarking that “one spark” could set the whole building ablaze. In spite of this, no record of an inspection for the building was ever found. It is also alleged that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. knew about the electrical dangers in the venue. No one from PG&E nor any police officer or firefighter is being charged.

Nothing was done to regulate this space by any of the people who had the power to do so. But inspections ultimately would have led to the displacement of those residents. Gentrification is a violent force in many cities, Oakland in particular. The tech boom has resulted in skyrocketing rent prices, leading to thousands of evictions and often forcing Oakland residents to live in unsafe spaces simply because they cannot afford to live anywhere else. This leads to venues continually being shut down, because no one has the money to pay rent for their houses, let alone a community space. This is why so many people were in that warehouse that night: a perfect storm of bureaucratic and legislative disorganization and violence that pushed an artistic community into an unsafe space. This, coupled with the negligence of the master-tenant and his landlord who lacked both the foresight and the care to make the space safe, led to the tragedy at Ghost Ship.

There is nothing in the world that can bring back the thirty-six people who died that night. They were musicians, artists, lovers, friends, people. They were all someone to someone, and so many now carry that absence with them every day. From this loss, more attention is beginning to be paid to the safety of DIY venues. Speaking specifically of Oakland, it has resulted in a few organizations that do work centered on creating safe spaces, like Vital Arts, an organization founded by Edwin Bernbaum who lost his son Jonathan in the fire. Others, like Safer Spaces DIY, have been created in the interest of protecting existing venues as they do the work necessary to keep their spaces and people safe.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.