Officials are now estimating that at least 36 people died in a devastating fire that swept through a warehouse called Ghost Ship in Oakland, California. Because of the dangerous condition of the warehouse, officials have searched about 70 percent of the building, as of early Monday. Extreme caution is being taken. But what caused this tragic fire? Officials are still determining the cause, but prosecutors have said they aren’t ruling out murder charges.
Here’s what you need to know.
Charges Could Range from Involuntary Manslaughter to Murder, But the Cause Hasn’t Yet Been Found
On Monday, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced that the probe into the fire’s cause was just beginning and it wasn’t yet known if a crime had caused the fire. However, she wasn’t ruling out the possibility that charges might be filed ranging from involuntary manslaughter to murder.
Criminal charges aren’t unprecedented for a case like this. In 2003, a fire at a Rhode Island nightclub killed 100 people. The nightclub owners and a band tour manager were charged with involuntary manslaughter.
At this point, it’s not known what caused the fire. If it was an act of arson, that could bring murder charges, as many as one count of murder for each person who died, the LA Times reported. An accidental fire caused by electrical wiring or a dropped cigarette could lead to manslaughter charges, especially if the building owners or operators didn’t keep the location up to code.
Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison helped run the building. Almena told KGO-TV that the people who died were his friends and family. Earlier, he had come under sharp criticism for a Facebook post where he lamented the loss of everything he had worked for.
Previous Residents Were Worried the Building Was Dangerous
It’s possible that poor upkeep or dangerous conditions led to the fire spreading so quickly. Russell Megowan told NBC News that he had started to move into the building two years ago, but decided against it because he was worried the location was dangerous. He described the downstairs of The Ghost Ship as a “maze” and finding your way out if you weren’t familiar with the building could be difficult. The building was also full of wooden objects, he said, and there were no sprinklers.
Officials said that the second floor was reachable through a makeshift staircase made out of wooden pallets and spare pieces of wood. Pallets are highly flammable. In fact, the National Fire Protection Association has suggested that wooden and plastic pallets be stored outside or in a detached structure, unless fire sprinklers are present.
Property records show the building is owned by the Chor N. Ng trust, NBC Bay Area reported. But the Ng family said they didn’t communicate with the tenants regularly. They also said there was a full, up-to-code stairway in the back of the building, and they didn’t know anything about the makeshift staircase.
The Building Did Not Have Permits to be a Residence or to Host Parties
An added issue is that 4,000-square-foot Ghost Ship building didn’t even have the permits to be used as a residence or for parties. It was legally designated as a warehouse. Twenty people might have lived there at a time, NBC News reported, and 40 to 50 people or more would go to parties that were held there two or three times a month. The building would have needed a special permit to hold those parties legally.
The couple who ran the building used the proceeds from the parties to cover their own living expenses, ABC News reported. And people who lived there were told to say it was a 24-hour workspace, not a residence. The building’s residents may have even borrowed electricity from others and had no running water. Despite the living conditions, communal properties such as these are attractive to artists because of rising rents in the area, Reuters reported.
Complaints Had Been Filed Before Against the Building
Prior to the fire, the Ghost Ship had been the subject of numerous complaints. NBC Bay Area reported that multiple complaints had been filed against the owner. One was a Housing Habitability Complaint filed on November 14 that was currently under investigation.
On November 13, a complaint was filed about garbage piling up, including some garbage that was possibly hazardous. An investigator tried to inspect the building on November 17, but could not gain entry.
The building was filled with odds-and-ends and as many as 10 RVs, much of which might have been flammable. A resident told The Guardian that she reported the building in 2014 because she was worried it was a fire hazard. Wood-framed couches, wooden trinkets, and 100 “old-school wooden pianos” filled the building. People would fall asleep with cigarettes in their mouths, and she was worried something could catch fire easily.