Report details death, panic in Oakland warehouse fire

AP News
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Posted: Jun 20, 2017 8:38 PM
Report details death, panic in Oakland warehouse fire

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Voices screamed out, "Fire!" Suddenly, the lights went out and it got harder to breathe. Many of the 36 people killed in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland huddled together in the dark, and that's where they died of smoke inhalation.

Some of the young partygoers' bodies were found wrapped together in rugs.

More than six months after the Dec. 2 blaze at the warehouse that authorities said was illegally converted into living quarters, the Oakland Fire Department has released a 50-page report filled with harrowing details of death and panic as the flames and deadly smoke spread. The report, dated March 18, was quietly released late Monday on the city's website.

It contains many previously unknown details about the nation's deadliest structure fire in more than 14 years and says investigators could not determine the cause of the blaze because of extensive fire damage.

The report offers the first official account of what survivors and witnesses told investigators and offers details of how about 52 firefighters battled the blaze at the 2-story warehouse, an artist collective that was throwing an electronic music party that night.

It also gives a vivid description of the warehouse's interior, a maze-like labyrinth with makeshift hallways and live-work spaces constructed not of walls but of "pianos, organs, windows, wood benches, lumber" and innumerable other scavenged items — like tapestries, motor homes and trailers, tree stumps and plywood — that blocked possible exits and fueled the blaze.

The party started at 9 p.m. and got crowded by about 11 p.m., warehouse tenant and survivor Bob Mule told investigators.

A short time later, Mule saw flames. He started yelling for people to get out of the building, the report said. It quoted another survivor, Chris Nechodom, who heard people yelling there was a fire and he fled.

Aaron Marin, a house guest staying in an upper studio, was upstairs when he saw flames coming from under the floor near the DJ's booth. People started down the staircase but turned back because the ramshackle stairwell of planks and wooden pallets was not safe.

"At that point the lights went out. Marin stated the smoke was much thicker and it was getting harder to breathe," the report said.

Marin told investigators he knew of a window and felt his way to it in the darkness. He climbed outside, hung from the window and dropped one story to the ground. Marin was one of the lucky few who escaped. No one else made it out that window.

One victim was found just 10 feet from the front door, buried under debris, the report said.

Seven bodies were found clustered near a couch upstairs, the report said.

Eight others were found wrapped together in a rug or nearby on the first floor. But they had apparently dropped from the second floor when it collapsed in the inferno.

Another three were found wrapped in another large rug and had fallen when the floor collapsed, landing on top of a motor home parked inside the warehouse, the report said.

Most of those who died were trapped upstairs, where the party was underway. It took firefighters days to dig out all the bodies.

All 36 died of smoke inhalation, their lungs clogged with smoke and soot, according to autopsy information in the report provided by the coroner's office.

One seriously injured survivor, Samuel Maxwell, was hospitalized for four months, the report says. A GoFundMe site set up for Maxwell says he was one of the last victims to escape the blaze and suffered severe smoke inhalation, which required a 5-week medically induced coma. He faces extensive therapy .

The warehouse had no sprinklers and an ad hoc electrical system of power strips and extension cords that drew "electricity from the body shop next door," according to Max Harris, the self-described "creative director" and second-in-command of the Ghost Ship.

Harris, 27, and Derick Almena, 47, who leased the warehouse from the owner, were charged this month with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Prosecutors say the men knowingly created a fire trap in a building not licensed for housing or entertainment.

Lawyers for the men say they are scapegoats and that the building's owner Chor Ng, who denies knowledge that people lived in the warehouse, should face criminal charges. Harris and Almena have not yet entered pleas to the charges.

The report is titled an "Origin and Cause Report," but it concluded that the fire's cause was undetermined.

Investigators traced the origin of the fire to a back corner of the warehouse's ground floor. But they could not pinpoint where it started because the fire caused so much destruction.

Possible causes not ruled out by investigators included electrical failure, candles, incense, smoking material or an open flame, the report said.

The Ghost Ship fire highlighted the precarious living situations of artists seeking affordable housing amid skyrocketing rents in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It also illustrated failures in Oakland's inspection system of buildings to assess fire risk. The warehouse was one block from a fire station.