Tuesday, January 3, 2017

THIS & THAT #18                                  


PRELUDEFriday, December 2, 2016
At 11:20 pm PST, a fire broke out in a warehouse known as Ghost Ship, located in the Fruitvale Section of Oakland, California. In the high-priced San Francisco Bay Area where rent for a one-bedroom dwelling averages $2,366 a month, the Ghost Ship’s landlord converted it into an artist collective. He offered financially struggling creative people an open space to live and work in, for less than $800 each a month.

The warehouse was two stories high with each artist having her or his own area. It was a satisfying maze in places, and in others, a crowded, cluttered cornucopia of couches, artwork, furniture, old pianos, raggedy rugs, mannequins, and wooden palettes used for a staircase. There were neither smoke detectors nor sprinklers. Many areas were heated by propane, electrical wiring was exposed, and the situation was ripe for the deadly inferno that occurred.

The landlord knew this, so did fire inspectors who rarely inspected the premises, as did the tenants who accepted these conditions as a tradeoff for unbelievably low rents.

That night, the collective was holding a concert, and many of those crowded into the Ghost Ship were unaware that there were two stairways, and that neither led to an exit.

AFTERMATH — Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Firefighters found the last of the 36 bodies that had died in the devastating fire.

If something goes right, there are always a myriad of people and organizations that step up and take credit for the results, even if they contributed little or nothing to the outcome. However, when things do not turn out right, or turn out dreadfully wrong, there’s a paucity of people who will admit that they were lacking in effort. They will step back, deny responsibility, and try to blame others for their inactions. Such was the case with the Ghost Ship fire, and the individuals and groups who should have been involved in preventing this disaster. Many are still in a state of denial.

With a home-buying option out of the price range of most in the progressive, artistic Bay Area community, many unemployed and under-employed seek inexpensive accommodations wherever they can find them. Some sleep in their vehicles, if they can afford to own one, others double or triple up with friends. Still others are willing to take their chances in Ghost Ship-like communes, even when they know that living conditions are sub-par, and no permits had been obtained. They weren’t open to leaving the area and finding dwellings in less expensive regions. By staying where creativity allegedly flows, they were consciously or unconsciously accepting responsibility for that choice, and were willing to live, or die, with it.

The owner, who seemed to be invisible and unavailable for any interviews, avoided any connection with the warehouse. She also owned several other potential firetraps in the Oakland area.  She leased the warehouse to one man, the landlord, who in turn, rented out spaces in the entire building to each of the tenants. He knew of the dangerous conditions, but did little to alleviate them. By just taking a perfunctory look at their surroundings, the tenants must have known of the terrible shape of the interior, the fire hazards which were all around them, and that there wasn’t a fire extinguisher, nor a smoke detector in sight. If all parties had put some effort into cleaning up the place, perhaps their names wouldn’t have been listed as victims.

After the fire, the landlord hired top-flight lawyers to defend him should lawsuits come his way, and one of his lawyers sent out a warning, “He should not be made a scapegoat.” Ironically, the landlord and his wife and children also lived in the warehouse, but they were staying in a hotel the night of the catastrophe.

Oakland is a city on the move, but one of its main problems is that professional sports teams are moving away. When they do, any city loses some of its luster, prestige and attention from the media and tourists.

The owner of the Oakland Raiders professional football team is being heavily wooed by the City of Las Vegas, and may be heading to that enticing locale. Some of Oakland’s elected officials are doing what they can to keep the Raiders, and probably investing more time on that project, rather than on insuring the safety of old warehouse buildings.

The Golden State Warriors professional basketball team will be leaving Oakland within three years, heading to a more prestigious location across the Bay in San Francisco. That’s a done deal, taking more shine away from the city’s sports scene.

According to some conflicting accounts, the Ghost Ship had not been regularly inspected, or even inspected at all, yet the Fire Department was aware of the extremely dangerous conditions inside. They had discovered debris outside the warehouse, and in perfunctory, unofficial glimpses, they knew of the hazards. The fire department’s union president said that they knew of the dangerous conditions they would face inside the burning building.

The Fire Chief acknowledged that they were woefully short of inspectors. Eight civilian fire inspectors were charged with performing state-mandated inspections annually on about 500 residential buildings, 350 schools, 520 places of assembly, 310 institutions such as hospitals, jails, and care facilities, and 123 high-rise buildings. The Ghost Ship avoided such inspections, since it was secretly operating as a residential building. On December 11, it was noted that the Fire Chief refused to release records, or answer specific questions, about her department’s role in inspecting the warehouse.

The Ghost Ship was located one block away from an Oakland fire station.

Most came for an inexpensive fun night out, gathering with friends and like-minded people. Parties like this one were considered the heart of the artistic community, and many looked forward to such happenings, finding out about them on social media.

People who attended the fateful concert had probably attended similar ones around the city. In most likelihood, they had never checked the Ghost Ship out, for if anyone had done so, they would have discovered that it was a disaster waiting to happen. Attendees were most likely unaware that the stairways out were in poor shape, and the exits were impossible to find.

Death can be quite final, and since all of the parties previously mentioned didn’t prepare themselves for complete destruction of the Ghost Ship beforehand. After the disaster, belated action began to place in an attempt to try and prevent future such occurrences.

The Ghost Ship is in ruins, and no one knows if it will ever be resurrected and rise from its ashes.  But to reduce the chances of the next such warehouse being converted into a tinderbox, landlords have begun taking overdue preventative action.

By December 17, people living at four similar warehouses in Oakland received eviction notices, and were given one month to three months to leave. The Mayor’s office is seeking to create a task force to assess and reduce risks in Oakland. One warehouse owner is looking to see what the city does next. He said, “They have to do something. For building owners and tenants, they should have a very specific and realistic plan, so we can comply with it.” The city also has to regularly inspect such buildings.

Name Love, an artist, is considering moving out of the Bay Area. “People who find these weird communities are usually people who feel rejected…people who don’t conform and are used to being kicked out.” A woman who identifies herself as an artist, dancer, juggler and object manipulator, said that grieving for lost artists is compounded by the loss of community spaces. She hopes “that the Oakland City Council will want to work with us and our landlords to support these spaces.”

If not, where will the artists go, and if the do, will they with take some of the Bay Area creativity with them?

Along with the attorney hired by the man who leased the warehouse and rented out the living and working spaces, in late December the owner of the Ghost Ship retained a Southern California-based attorney. The owner owns multiple properties in Oakland, and records indicated that she had paid more than $20,000 in code enforcement fees between 2008 and 2014.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office had its own investigation going, and was contemplating whether or not criminal liability is attached to this fire.

The families of two victims have filed lawsuits against the building's owner, the Ghost Ship landlord, and those responsible for promoting and hosting the performance. The families have also sued the city of Oakland and Alameda County, but per the California Tort Claims Act, those government entities were listed in a separate lawsuit. In that suit, the families cite "negligence" on the part of city officials to shut down the art space, which lacked the necessary permits to conduct shows.

                                                  Neither Rhyme Nor Reason
Rags galore, treasures small, stairs of palettes, piles of wood.
All consumed in pyre ashes, in the Fruitvale neighborhood.

Was it a leaky propane tank? Was it a loose electrical wire?
That helped to quickly ignite, Oakland’s most deadly fire?

Thirty-six humans were consumed in the flame.
Fingers still pointing, at someone else to blame.

The Ghost Ship has sailed away, to a far, far distant shore.
Passengers are lost forever, gone to a land of never more.

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