The Oakland Fire Department has released their official report on last December's Ghost Ship Fire: Origin and Cause Report: Incident # 2016-085231.
The report is long, detailed, thorough, and terribly, terribly sad.
It is vividly illustrated with many pictures, which are simultaneously fascinating and heart-breaking.
In the end, the report accepts the limits of what is known:
No witnesses to the incipient stage of the fire were located. Based on witness statements and analysis of fire patterns, an area of origin was identified in the northwest area of the ground floor of the warehouse. In support of this hypothesis, fire patterns and fire behavior were considered, including ventilation effects of door openings, and the fuel load, consisting of large amounts of non-traditional building materials. This analysis was challenged with alternate hypotheses of fire origins, away from, or communicating to an area remote from, the immediate area of fire origin. Several potential ignition sources were considered. No conclusive determination of the initial heat source or the first materials ignited was made. The fire classification is UNDETERMINED.
In their Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the fire, At least nine dead, many missing in Oakland warehouse fire ,the East Bay Times highlighted the eccentricities of the collective's building, details which are thoroughly corroborated by the OFD's detailed report.
Alemany had advertised on Facebook and Craigslist looking for renters seeking "immediate change and loving revolution," who enjoyed "poetics, dramatics, film, tantric kitten juggling and nude traffic directing." He described it as 10,000 square feet of vintage redwood and antique steel "styled beyond compare."
His 1951 purple Plymouth remained parked Saturday in front of the building that burned so hot, the “Ghost Ship” letters painted across the front had all but melted away.
"They are ex-Burning Man people and had their kids in the place -- three kids running around with no shoes," said DeL Lee, 34, who lived there for three months two years ago. "It was nuts."
He described the place as a filthy firetrap, with frequent power outages, overloaded outlets, sparks and the smell of burning wire. A camping stove with butane tanks served as the kitchen, and a hole had been chiseled through the concrete wall to access the bathroom at the adjoining automotive repair shop next door.
The staircase, which had two switchbacks to get to the second floor, was built of pallets, plywood and footholds -- like a ship’s gangplank -- and was like "climbing a fort" to get up and down, say people who had visited the building.
Pianos and old couches doubled as room dividers. Pallets covered with shingles and elaborate trim formed sculptural walls. Often, Lee said, the place was filled with the sounds of sawing and hammering as Alemany continued to build.
And the OFD report confirms that chaos:
The front staircase was located along the east wall at the front of the structure. It was constructed of various wooden planks and wooden studs, as well as portions of wooden pallets at its top where it accessed the second floor. One of two bathrooms was elevated slightly off ground level where the lower staircase landing was located. The orientation of the staircase was such that it first led eastward where it bordered the east wall, then turned north (rearward), where it then turned slightly west at the very top of the staircase at the second floor.
As the Mercury News observes, releasing the report is a milestone but it's not the last we'll hear of this; the next steps will involve the courts:
Almena and the collective’s creative director, Max Harris, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in Alameda County Superior Court. Prosecutors charge the men knowingly created a fire trap and invited the public inside. Lawyers for the two men say their clients are being used as scapegoats and say the building owner Chor Ng should be facing criminal charges.
Ng, Almena, PG&E, are named in a wrongful death lawsuit that is in its early stages. The City of Oakland is expected to be named in the suit as soon as this week.
“Of course, we’d like to have them say what the cause of the fire is but we also have our experts and they are not done with their analysis. I don’t think it’s the end of the story,” said Mary Alexander, the lead attorney for the victim’s families.
Meanwhile, as Rick Paulas writes at The Awl, the media attention has already brought many changes to the "artist collective" aspect of the Bay Area and beyond: How The Media Mishandled The Ghost Ship Fire
“It was a tragedy, then it became a tragedy on an entirely different spectrum,” said Friday. “The original was the loss of such vibrant, wonderful people. And that was forgotten and it just became about housing ordinances, and this witch hunt of warehouses.”
The hunt continues, not just in Oakland, but around the country. City governments — rather than focusing efforts on bringing warehouses up to code, of empathizing with tenants forced to live in unsafe conditions due to increasing rents and lower wages, hell, even pragmatically understanding the added value these fringe residents add to a city’s cultural cachet — are simply closing down venues, then moving on to close down the next. Two days after Ghost Ship, the tenants of Baltimore’s iconic Bell Foundry were evicted. A week after that, the punk venue Burnt Ramen in Richmond, CA was shut down. On April 27th, eight people living in an artist collective in San Francisco were evicted.
The cities say they don’t want another Ghost Ship, implying they mean another massive loss of life. But the speed at which they’re performing these evictions — and the lack of solutions they’re offering to those displaced — suggests that what they really don’t want is another Ghost Ship media event: vultures descending, camera lights illuminating the dark corners of their own institutional failures.
It's important that we not forget the Ghost Ship tragedy, but it's a hard story to (re-)read and (re-)consider, with plenty of sadness to go around.