OAKLAND, Calif. — For the artists who lived in the rickety, debris-filled warehouse called “the Ghost Ship,” what lured them was the promise of beauty and art. What they saw this weekend instead was death and reality in its most brutal and tragic form.
The step-by-step search after Friday inferno — so far turning up 36 bodies — has covered 85 percent of the building’s charred hulk, said Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputy Tya Modeste on Tuesday.
Crews now hope to buttress the remaining portion of the site, which has been too unstable to enter. Authorities warn the death toll could rise as the last corners are combed.
On Monday, survivors, former tenants and family members desperately waited for news and gave vivid accounts of the eclectic community that sprang up within the building’s fragile walls.
Some were mournful, even wistful about the bohemian life they found in the large two-story warehouse. They described it as a nourishing space where creativity thrived and a refuge in a city where ever-rising housing prices were constantly chasing artists away.
Others were scathing and recalled conditions ripe for disaster.
“It’s a death trap waiting to happen,” said Shelley Mack, a jewelry maker who used to live at the Ghost Ship, paying $700 a month for rent.
The unstable structure was deemed unsafe for much of Monday, prompting fire officials to pull back workers who had been haltingly trying to excavate the burned remains of those who came to a music party at the warehouse. Investigators had identified 33 of the dead, including three victims from Finland, South Korea and Guatemala, and had conducted autopsies on 22.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said that charges of murder or involuntary manslaughter were possible, although she noted that a criminal investigation was in its early stages. Federal investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting.
The warehouse was not licensed for dwellings or event space, and city authorities had recently sent an inspector after neighbors and others complained about trash outside and conditions inside.
What Mack discovered when she moved into the Ghost Ship was stark. There were no sprinklers or fire alarms in the building, she said. Propane tanks, located underneath a sink and in a hallway outside the bathroom, were used to provide hot water. Transformers could be found in several places, she said, and people were constantly tripping over the wires and cords that ran throughout the space. A transformer exploded a couple of months after she moved in.
The building often had no electricity, said Mack, who recalled often using a small flashlight on her keychain to get around. On the first floor were makeshift recreational vehicles where people lived; Mack said her RV was at the back part of the building. A rickety, makeshift staircase made of wooden pallets led to the second floor, which was used for events.
“It was like organized chaos,” said Mariah Benavides, who used to babysit for Derick Ion Almena, who leased the building, and his wife, Micah Allison. The couple and their three children were not at the warehouse during the blaze, because, some reports said, Almena had rented out the space for the party.
“It was dark. There were nails coming from the ground. The staircase was totally unstable. There was so much stuff,” Benavides said. “There were people living downstairs on the first level, almost like a makeshift RV park with campers randomly everywhere.”
Despite the conditions, many described finding meaning and even beauty in the chaos.
The community included tattoo artists, jewelry makers, painters, sculptors, and people who hand-stitched outfits and handbags. In addition to its draw as a symbol of artistry, it also was frequently the home of concerts such as the one held Friday night, when the fire began, and a sanctuary for many in Oakland’s LGBT community.
Nikki Kelber, one of about 23 people who lived in the warehouse, said, “It was one of the most amazing, beautiful spaces you could ever see.”
“It was beautiful,” said Pete Veilleux, who was friends with people who lived there. “It was like an art gallery, but people lived there.”
In pictures on the community’s website, oaklandghostship.com, every nook and cranny seems crammed with eclectic objects — wood 2-by-4s, antique furniture, wooden lofts, tapestries, pianos, organs, yards of bright textiles, Persian rugs piled on the floors and other oddities.
In retrospect, those objects appear as kindling, and the rooms subdivided by wooden walls as a deadly labyrinth that partygoers and residents tried to navigate amid the smoke and the terror.
“The space was never meant to have people living there,” said Benavides, who had last visited the Ghost Ship in 2014. “They tried to create that, and they created it in a way that’s unsafe.”
Benavides said Almena and Allison would leave their children — then ages 1, 3 and 9 — for days at a time. Because the warehouse didn’t have running water, the children sometimes showered and ate at the nearby house of a friend of Benavides.
“I don’t feel like they were totally malicious or evil people,” she said. “They were selfish and arrogant.”
In a Facebook post soon after the fire, Almena wrote: “Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound . . . it’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope . . . to be standing now in poverty of self worth.”
The post, which was later deleted, drew criticism and anger from families of the dead and survivors of the fire.
“I can’t explain who I am anymore,” Almena told NBC News in an interview broadcast Monday night. “We’ve done everything that we possibly can afford to do,” his wife added.
Danielle Boudreaux, an artist, hairdresser, and jewelry and handbag maker, said she had a falling out with Almena a year and a half ago after she told him not to raise his children at the warehouse and convinced Allison’s relatives that it was dangerous.
Boudreaux said “stairway” was too generous a description for the steps leading to the second level where Almena’s family lived.
“It only took two people on it at a time . . . when you stepped on it, it wobbled, and there were ropes holding it up. If you had three people on that, it was falling down,” she said.
Once the fire began, she said, “there was no way you were getting out of that building. Even if you knew about the back stairwell, even if you knew it could take you up to the roof, who knows if you could have had time to get out even then?”
Jeffrey Pine, a former Rhode Island attorney general who defended a nightclub owner who faced criminal charges for a fire that killed 100 people in that state in 2003, said Oakland investigators will have to determine what caused the fire, whether flammable materials were allowed inside the building, and whether there had been any code violations.
It’s unclear whether Oakland officials, or the building’s owner, Chor Ng, were aware that the warehouse had been converted into a residential artists collective, or that concerts or parties were being held inside.
In the years since the recession, budgets for building-code enforcement have fallen significantly in most cities, said Elley Klausbruckner, a San Diego-based fire and building-code consultant, “so there’s less budget to be able to police these types of facilities.”
At a news conference, Darin Ranelletti, director of Oakland’s Planning and Building Department, said the last permitted use of the building was as a warehouse, so neither habitation nor a concert would have been legal.
The building had a long history of complaints, with some lodged as recently as last month.
Al Garcia, who owns a business across the street, said trash, pianos, crates, boards, statues and abandoned cars were piled up outside the building.
The Planning and Building Department had previously investigated the warehouse after complaints about trash and blight outside the property and conditions inside.
The most recent such complaint occurred on Nov. 13, Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, said. “They also alleged there was illegal or unpermitted construction inside, and possible residential use.”
She said the city sent an inspector to the building on Nov. 17 in response to the complaints, but the inspector couldn’t get into the building, so the investigation simply remained open.
Guerra and Wan reported from Washington. Jasper Scherer in Oakland and Sarah Larimer in Washington contributed to this report.