Just weeks after Ghost Ship leaseholder Derick Ion Almena and tenant Max Harris were each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Dec. 2, 2016, fire at the Oakland, Calif., warehouse, the city has released a 50-page “Origin and Cause” report that details the events surrounding the state’s deadliest building fire since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The report, which was issued on June 19, officially classifies the cause of the fire as “undetermined.” Despite this inconclusive ruling, the document contains statements from several building occupants who claim the 9,880-sq-ft structure had been experiencing electrical problems, such as power outages, for some time. Compounding the alleged electrical issues, the report reveals, “The building was not equipped with an automatic fire suppression system (sprinklers) or an automatic fire detection system. Several fire extinguishers were located throughout the warehouse. One battery-operated smoke detector was found in the debris.”
In addition, the document includes an in-depth description of the two-story structure’s electrical service, which was inspected one week after the fire occurred by fire investigators along with electrical engineers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Observations included:
• The events that tripped the 2-pole 50A circuit breakers in the main subpanel resulted in the loss of electric supply to the entire fire building.
• Visual examination of the entire configuration revealed modifications to the electrical systems, completed at mostly unknown dates between original construction and the time of the investigation. Within the main electric subpanel for the fire building, located on the ground floor of the auto shop next door to the warehouse, conductors in the subpanel were dated November 2014.
Remarks regarding the non-fixed interior electrical systems within the building of origin state, “The portion most heavily affected by heat was located in an area building occupants described as a small office. In this area, the conductors inside the conduit were exposed to heat sufficient to consume their insulating material. There was no evidence of arc-melting on the conductors.”
Furthermore, the report discloses that warehouse occupants admitted using power strips to supply electricity to lamps and appliances instead of using the fixed electrical components of the building, such as outlets, and that each of the 36 victims died from smoke inhalation. One person remains hospitalized with serious injuries at the time the report was issued and is unable to give an eyewitness account of the event.
At the time of Almena and Harris’s arrests on June 5, the Alameda County district attorney’s office issued a press release stating that the two men acted knowingly and with disregard for the risk when they:
• Allowed individuals to live in the warehouse and deceived the police, fire department and owners about that fact.
• Allowed large groups to assemble in the warehouse for musical events in the space and on Dec. 2, 2016, they actually blocked one of two means of egress.
• Conducted unpermitted and uninspected construction, including electrical work.
• Allowed the floor-to-ceiling storage of large quantities of highly flammable materials that created a deadly and dangerous space.
According to Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, “Defendants Almena and Harris knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape, filled it with human beings, and are now facing the consequences of their deadly actions.”