In that warehouse — among the explosion of musical instruments, velvet cushions, hanging lamps and spiritual tchotchkes — the collective hosted, with questionable authority, everything from artists’ exhibits to yoga retreats.
And it was at such an event late Friday night, at a synth-pop concert attended by about 50 people, that something went horrifically wrong. For reasons still unknown, a fire broke out at the warehouse about 11:30 p.m., spreading quickly and trapping dozens of mostly young concertgoers, some of whom were from outside the Bay Area or the United States.
“I think it’s important to say this was not a rave,” said Michael Rosen, who was at the party, left for a few minutes, and saw the building on fire when he returned. “This was a very intimate gathering. It wasn’t a wild, out-of-control party where things got out of hand.”
By Saturday, only the charred letters of the warehouse’s now-ominous nickname — “GHOST SHIP” — could be seen on the side of the building. The smell of burned debris would linger in the neighborhood for two days after the fire.
As of Sunday afternoon, the death toll from what officials say is the deadliest fire in Oakland’s recent history had risen to at least 33.
As officials investigate the cause of the fire and continue to recover bodies, neighbors and others who knew of the Oakland Ghost Ship have emerged to cast much of the blame for the tragedy on tenants of the cluttered warehouse.
City officials have said that the building had been previously investigated after complaints about trash outside the property and illegal internal structures.
Al Garcia, one of the neighbors who has made such complaints in the past, thinks the fire could have been prevented.
“That place is just a mess. Garbage and debris outside, huge amount of debris,” said Garcia, 62. “There is like a garbage field next door to it.”
Pianos, crates, boards, statues and abandoned cars were piled up outside the building, he said.
A Tumblr site for the Oakland Ghost Ship depicted a labyrinthine complex jammed, floor to ceiling, with flammable objects: Wooden two-by-fours nailed to one another. Yards of bright textiles hung from the ceiling and draped across the walls. Rugs upon rugs upon rugs, piled on the floors. There was a piano or organ in seemingly every corner.
Other decorations seemed especially ominous in retrospect: Tables were cluttered with statues of religious figures and replicas of human skulls. In one room, a lampshade was emblazoned with the Chinese character for “fortune.”
“It was a tinderbox,” Brooke Rollo, who did not attend Friday’s event but said she had gone to other parties at the Ghost Ship, told the Los Angeles Times.
Garcia said the Oakland Ghost Ship was fully engulfed in flames when he walked over about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, when he saw two teenagers sitting on the sidewalk, crying. They told him they had been at the party and were the last ones to get out, he said.
“It got dark and smoke took us over,” one of the teenagers told him, Garcia said.
The teenagers said they were on the second floor of the building when they heard people from outside screaming. They ran down a rickety staircase made of wooden pallets, unable to see where they were going, they told Garcia, but they knew several people behind them were also trying to get out, he said.
“When we turned around, nobody came out behind us,” one of the teenagers said, according to Garcia.
Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach-Reed told The Washington Post on Saturday that Friday’s concert was being held on the second floor, where most of the bodies were later found. A makeshift stairway put together with pallets was separating it from the first floor, Deloach-Reed said.
By the time firefighters arrived at the scene, the staircase had burned away, fire officials said.
The building’s instability slowed the early recovery effort. Officials said Saturday the building’s roof had collapsed onto the second floor and, in many areas, the first floor as well. Firefighters and structural engineers spent much of the day shoring up the structure so it would be safe to enter the building and recover the bodies.
Fire crews worked overnight, combing through piles of debris and transferring them to an empty building next door, Melinda Drayton, battalion chief for the Oakland Fire Department, told reporters at a news conference Sunday morning.
As of Sunday afternoon, crews had been able to go through only 30 percent of the building.
“This will be a long, arduous process,” Drayton said. “What we were able to accomplish in 12 hours was a phenomenal feat. We have a lot more to go. We’re going to be here for a few more days.”
Drayton paused to regain composure as she talked about the rescue efforts.
“Bucket by bucket, in a methodical, thoughtful, mindful and compassionate way. We have firefighters basically with coveralls, buckets and shovels, taking bits of debris out into the vacant lot,” she said. “The somber approach that they took this search, it was quiet, it was heartbreaking.”
She said crews found 10 of the victims in the middle of the building. Four of them were close together, and the six others were within 10 feet. Three more were found on the east side of the building, Drayton said.
Questions remain about whether electrical problems, pyrotechnics, or errant candles or cigarettes started the fire. Fire officials said the building did not have sprinklers.
“We don’t believe that we have even gotten close to the point of origin of the fire,” Drayton said.
The warehouse was apparently home to the Satya Yuga Collective, which described itself online as “an unprecedented fusion of earth home bomb bunker helter skelter spelunker shelters and indonesian straw huts rolling into valleys and down alleys.” It was run by a man identified by the San Jose Mercury News as Derick Alemany. A phone call to the number listed for Alemany on a Satya Yuga event flier led to an automated message that said calls were not being accepted at this time.
“I’m not going to speak to anybody about that kind of stuff,” she told the paper. “I’m going to have to speak to my lawyers before I answer any questions.”
A post early Saturday morning on Facebook, where Alemany maintained an account under the name “Derick Ion,” drew scathing responses for not mentioning the loss of life but rather his seeming lament that the warehouse was gone.
“Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone,” he wrote. “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.”
An arson investigation would also be underway, although the fire is not being investigated as a crime, said officer Johnna Watson, a spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department.
The city planning and building department had previously investigated the warehouse because of complaints about trash outside the property and illegal internal structures built inside the warehouse, said Darin Ranelletti, the department’s director. Complaints had been filed about the building as recently as November.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said a comprehensive record of the warehouse’s history is being compiled. She called for an independent, outside expert to examine the recovery efforts and city inspections of the building.
A complaint, filed Nov. 13, alleged blight, external trash and debris around the building and in an adjacent lot owned by the same person.
An inspector was sent to the warehouse on Nov. 17 to examine alleged illegal construction and residential use inside the property, Schaaf said. That investigation is still ongoing because the inspector had been unable to go inside the building, located on 31st Avenue, a short block off International Boulevard, one of the main thoroughfares of East Oakland.
The last permitted use of the building was as a warehouse, Ranelletti said, so neither habitation nor a concert would have been legal without permits.
That didn’t stop the warehouse from holding regular concerts and parties, according to its neighbors.
Huong Pham, a woman who has lived for 16 years about a block away from the Ghost Ship, at Derby Ave. and East 13th St., said she has seen large piles of trash bags inside and in front of the building for at least the past two years.
Young people who probably lived in the building threw loud parties there every weekend, she said, and often on weeknights, too.
On Sunday, though, she had a different concern.
“I have trouble sleeping from the smell of burned debris,” Pham said.
Wang and Guerra reported from Washington.