Written on behalf of Brian S. Kabateck
January 27, 2017
As investigators work swiftly to determine the cause of the state’s deadliest fire in more than a decade, there’s plenty of evidence that code violations and a lack of inspections played a significant role in contributing to the death toll.
On December 2, 2016, 36 people died in a fire at the Oakland “Ghost Ship” Warehouse, during a party. The structure had been illegally converted into an artist workspace and residence. It had been cited numerous times for not being up to local or state building codes, and called a “death trap,” cluttered with works of art, musical instruments, and other debris that was heavily flammable. Also contributing to fatalities was the fact that access to the second floor was limited, and partygoers were trapped when the fire began on the first floor.
The warehouse lacked enough exit signs, sprinklers, smoke alarms, and fire extinguishers. It had not been inspected in 30 years. The cause of the fire was said to be overloaded electrical lines. Arson has apparently been ruled out despite the owners now claiming it was started somewhere else.
Because authorities were not vigilant in holding the owners accountable to maintaining a safe environment, parents of two of the victims have initiated lawsuits not just against the property owners and lessors, but also against the city and local agencies. Other lawsuit targets include: contractors, engineers, architects; promoters of the musical event the night of the fire; and manufacturers of items inside which may have started the fire.
Oakland’s fire chief, Teresa Deloach Reed, was unsure if the warehouse was even in the fire department’s database. The department’s fire marshal was responsible for scheduling the list of sites for fire inspectors to visit; Deloach Reed held the position of marshal in addition to her post as chief, due to a lack of funding. Zac Unger, vice president of the union representing Oakland firefighters, criticized Deloach Reed for being unable to discharge the duties of both positions effectively. A full time fire marshal might have been more attentive to buildings falling through the cracks for inspection.
A survivor of the fire, who was also a resident of Ghost Ship, was well aware of the safety problems. The owner, Derick Ion Almena, had informed tenant Aaron Marin of fire hoses, limited fire extinguishers, and refurbished windows, once sealed, that could now be opened. Yet Marin noted that extension cords and electrical appliances peppered the area, a clear fire hazard, and was warned by his girlfriend not to set up a living space without a clear escape. Marin’s knowledge of the windows saved his life, as he used them to escape instead of the crowded staircase where partygoers were trapped.
It is clear that the deadly blaze in Oakland did not have to happen, and 36 lives need not have been snuffed out. The blame is at the foot of the owners and managers of the warehouse, who illegally permitted residents in a non-residential property, and tolerated abominable safety violations. The city of Oakland and its public servants, who allowed a firetrap to fester for decades, also share blame, and should now be held accountable for their negligence.
A civil lawsuit may be brought directly by the survivors of the deceased person, or by the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate. Survivors of the deceased person include the surviving spouse, domestic partner and surviving children. Damages are determined according to whether they compensate the estate for losses associated with the death, or the surviving family members for the personal losses they suffered as a result of the death. Losses include, but are not limited to, funeral and burial expenses, medical expenses while alive, lost income of the decedent, the value of household services, loss of anticipated financial support, and the loss of love, community, attention, affection, moral support, and guidance.
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