Two people have been charged with 36 counts each of involuntary manslaughter in connection to the December Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people inside an Oakland warehouse, the L.A. Times reports.
Derick Ion Almena, the warehouse’s operator and concert promoter who converted the space into an underground venue and living space for local artists, was arrested Monday morning, according to Almeda County Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick.
Max Harris, the warehouse’s creative director who had been living in the space since 2014, was also arrested. Harris was the doorman on the night of December 2nd, when a fire broke out inside the Ghost Ship and trapped numerous attendees. Both men face up to 39 years in prison.
“The defendants knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape,” Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said in a press conference Monday. “They are now facing the consequences of their actions. The paying guests at the event were faced with a nearly impossible labyrinth of the defendants’ making to get out of that building. Almena and Harris’ actions were reckless, and they created the high risk of death.”
“They allowed individuals to live in the warehouse and decieved the police, fire department and the owners of the building to that fact,” O’Malley said. “They allowed large groups to assemble in the warehouse for unpermitted and unsafe musical events in the space. And on December 2nd, 2016, particularly, they actually blocked one of the points of egress, leaving only one way to get out of the second floor of that building.”
O’Malley went on to add that “the building had no fire suppression, nor did it have lighted pathways to get out.” “They also conducted unpermitted and uninspected construction in the building, including electrical work,” she said. “And very purposefully they allowed floor-to-ceiling storage of large quantities of highly flammable materials that created a deadly and dangerous space.”
Over 70 people were in attendance for a Golden Donna concert; the 36 victims, whose ages ranged from 17 to 61, all died from smoke inhalation, according to coroner’s reports.
Harris previously claimed he reported electrical issues and power outages, along with crucial upgrades and electrical bills, with the building’s owners, The L.A. Times reports.
But Oakland officials have denied being made aware of dangers inside the crammed, 10,000-square-foot warehouse. The city’s fire chief stated that the department hadn’t inspected the location or responded to dispatches there in over 10 years, adding that city officials were unaware it was being used a concert and living space.
However, in February, the city released public records showing that the building had received at least 10 code enforcement complaints.
Chor N. Ng owned the warehouse. Her daughter, Eva Ng, previously claimed the building was only leased as a studio space and not as residences. Neither have been charged, however, in connection with the fire.
A lawyer for Almena did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
As demonstrated by photos released before the fire, the building was confusingly structured and crammed with collectibles, instruments and art projects. Oakland Fire Department Chief Teresa Deloach Reed even described the building as being “like a maze.”
On Monday, the D.A.’s office said that the cause of the fire remains undetermined due, in part, to much of the evidence being lost in the fire.
Ghost Ship was known as a safe haven for local artists. “People are desperate for places,” executive director of Gray Area Foundation for the Arts Josette Melchor told CNN. “It’s one of those things where you don’t want to report something you see because you know how hard it is for people to find spaces.”
Artists lived in the warehouse and built lofts between the first and second floors, using two-by-fours and other types of wood. Photographer Bob Mulé, a loft resident, described to Rolling Stone the chaotic scene in the warehouse as the fire began. “There’s fire extinguishers all over the place, but of course, in the moment, it’s like, ‘Where the fuck are they?'” he said.
Days after the tragedy, Almena apologized for the horrific fire during a bizarre interview on Today, though he flinched when asked if he should be held accountable.
“I’m only here to say one thing: I’m incredibly sorry and that everything that I did was to make this a stronger and more beautiful community and to bring people together,” he said.
“I’m not going to answer these questions on this level,” he responded to questions about possible criminal negligence. “I’d rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents [of the victims]. I’d rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions.”