‘Ghost Ship’ Fire Illustrates Importance of Safety Regulations

Oakland law enforcement officials display images from the scene of the Dec. 5 “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire, which claimed the lives of 36 people and has left nearly 50 others unaccounted for. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Nearly a year and a half ago, the Bay Area was rocked by the senseless deaths of six young people who died in the collapse of an apartment balcony in Berkeley. Last Friday night, we experienced another tragedy affecting young people, though with a far greater loss of life.

My heart, and those of the entire Bay Area, go out to the families and friends whose loved ones died in the horrific Oakland warehouse fire.

The recovery and identification of the remains of those who perished is the initial focus of the City of Oakland and local law enforcement and fire departments. With the completion of the recovery process, these public agencies, along with state and federal agencies, will turn their attention to how the tragedy occurred. In addition, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has activated its criminal investigation teams. They will examine whether criminal charges should be brought following the determination of the cause of the fire.

I have been asked questions by several persons concerning the Oakland warehouse fire, including whom could be held legally responsible. At this point, I do not wish to comment publicly on whom may be at fault. It remains a time of deep sorrow and grieving.

Instead, I wish to convey to young people to use high caution in attending shows or parties open to the public at warehouses and other commercial properties, and not nightclubs, concert halls or theaters. You literally may be walking into a death trap, should a fire break out.

Promoters of events at warehouses routinely fail to obtain permits which serve the vital purpose of ensuring the safety of patrons. These event spaces often cannot safely accommodate the number of attendees and lack adequate security.

The “Ghost Ship,” the name of the building where the tragedy occurred, was a two-story warehouse. It contained personalized, hand-built spaces tailored for musicians and artists and reportedly housed 50 persons. The first floor of the warehouse was an artists’ collective made up of divided work space, filled end-to-end with furniture, artwork, musical instruments, wooden lofts, rugs and tapestries. The second floor was used for entertainment and event space

The Ghost Ship and nearby properties along International Boulevard in the Fruitvale District are zoned as Community Commercial 2 property under Oakland’s zoning code. Absent obtaining a permit from City Hall, warehouses in Oakland may not house permanent residents nor host large-scale parties, shows and other recreational events and assemblies. This restriction is true for warehouses in most Bay Area cities.

The Ghost Ship had permits for use solely as a warehouse, not as a living or entertainment space. It lacked sprinklers and fire alarms. There were only two exits, neither of which was clearly marked. Such markings were critical to the safety of visitors as the crowded and cluttered first floor has been described as a “labyrinth” by fire officials. The only way in and out of the second-floor event space was a narrow, makeshift staircase that itself was a fire hazard. The staircase was made out of stacked wooden pallets.

If you attend a show or party at a venue that is not a nightclub, concert hall or theater ask yourself: (1) Are there clearly marked and accessible exits, (2) are there flammable materials throughout the event space, (3) are there any fire sprinklers or alarms, and (4) is there security at the venue. If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” take that as a red flag, and I recommend you spend your time elsewhere.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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