The Oakland Fire: Delving Into What Happened, and Why
ICCNC: Less than one week after a blaze ripped through a ramshackle warehouse known as the Ghost Ship, this shocked city is grappling with an array of questions about what precisely happened, many of them deeply troubling. The NY Times has published an analyze report from the warehouse fire in Oakland:
To try to answer them, The New York Times is deploying a team of journalists across Oakland as part of an investigative reporting effort.
We would typically reveal our findings in an article published at the end of our reporting.
This time, though, we are doing something different: We are going to share regular updates on what we uncover as we do our reporting.
We’ll tell you about the interviews that our journalists conduct, the documents we obtain and what we learn as we learn it — as part of our effort to piece this story together.
We are also asking readers for help in tracking down information, and for suggestions on what issues related to the fire we should explore.
Here Are Some Questions We’re Asking ...
• Could the city have done more to prevent the Ghost Ship fire? What did the city know about the violations at the warehouse? Did it follow up on citations?
• What was the cause of the blaze?
• What more can be learned about the owner and tenant-manager? Who is ultimately responsible?
• Should this tragedy result in more crackdowns on illegal housing in Oakland?
• Who are the people living in spaces like the Ghost Ship?
• Are there other places like it in Oakland, and why do people choose to live there?
• What does this story tell us about gentrification in the city?
• What does the fire mean for Oakland?
The Code Violation System
Yamiche Alcindor is on the team of Times reporters looking into the aftermath of the fire.
On Wednesday, I set off to find out more about Oakland’s fire inspection codes, which have become a major focus since the fire.
Topping the list of people to contact was Zac Unger, vice president of Local 55, the Oakland firefighters union, who had told several news outlets that the Fire Department had suffered from mismanagement. After playing phone tag for part of the morning, Mr. Unger spoke with me for about half an hour and laid out what he said were years of problems in the department.
Specifically, Mr. Unger said he had complained regularly to city officials, telling them that the city does not have enough fire inspectors and that its Fire Department lacks proper resources. Mr. Unger also said he had openly criticized Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed for going several years without having a fire marshal to oversee whether the city was inspecting the proper number of buildings and potentially hazardous spaces.
“I said specifically the mismanagement of the Fire Department is going to lead to a tragedy and you need to do something about it now, and I am heartbroken to have been proven right and to have all of these people dead,” Mr. Unger said.
Still, it is too early to say if city officials could have done more to prevent the fire. Officials have not said how many times fire inspectors visited the Ghost Ship to check for fire hazards, or if city code inspectors ever flagged the building as being used for something other than its zoned purpose. (I am awaiting a response from the fire chief and other city officials.)
Sgt. Barry Donelan, the president of the Oakland Police Officers’ Association, said it was “ridiculous” to expect police officers responding to emergencies to also determine if the buildings they enter have dangerous living conditions. “My guys are trying to get out there and protect our community,” he said. “They are going to do their duties. But you can’t be effective in arrests and imposing building codes. That’s ludicrous.”
He added that in their reports, officers focus on crimes like robberies or domestic violence, and don’t scour residences for code violations. He said he wasn’t sure how many times officers had visited the Ghost Ship.
The building was owned by Chor Nar Siu Ng, who also owns several other Oakland properties. Current and former tenants have told my colleagues that when Ms. Ng or her daughter came by, Mr. Almena and Ms. Allison told tenants to pack away bedding and cooking supplies.
According to a 2014 report by an Alameda County grand jury that investigated the Oakland Fire Department’s efforts to inspect commercial buildings, fire inspections were usually “conducted on a block-by-block basis and initiated” by the department. California law also mandates that commercial properties be inspected annually. But that same 2014 report found that 4,000 buildings were not inspected because of “competing” priorities.
According to its records, Oakland’s Planning and Building Department has not had an inspector inside the Ghost Ship in the last 30 years, Darin Ranelletti, the department’s interim director, said Wednesday. “That means that we had no applications for permits in the last 30 years and there were no violations that were submitted for interior work within the main building attributed to that street address,” he said.
WHAT’S NEXT: What are the competing priorities that leave some 4,000 buildings uninspected each year? What does the city’s inspection process look like? What are the fire and police protocols when firefighters or officers spot potentially dangerous living conditions?
— YAMICHE ALCINDOR