Remembering the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire 6 years later

OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) – Friday marks six years since the deadliest fire in the history of Oakland. On Dec. 2, 2016, 36 people attending an event at the Ghost Ship warehouse lost their lives trying to escape a fast-moving fire.  

I will never forget that night — a friend of mine was in a rush to get to that party. He froze in horror with his phone in hand, looking at a picture sent to him of flames bursting through the windows of the warehouse. He turned to me and said, “I think my friends are dying.” 

The Oakland warehouse that went by the name “Ghost Ship” was converted into both a home and event space years ago. It drew party-goers for many nights filled with music and fun. But for 36 people, a dance on December 2, 2016, would be their last.

The artist’s collective wasn’t set up or permitted to support the vision of the master tenant. Derrick Almena was held criminally responsible for illegally using the building as a live-work space. 

Prosecutors described the makeshift two-story structure as dangerously designed and decorated with flammable material. Essentially, it was a tinder box fire trap with just a narrow staircase for an escape route. There were no smoke detectors or sprinklers. 

Almena pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to serve 12 years, while his artistic director Max Harris was acquitted. But friends and family of the fire victims were enraged to learn Almena would avoid prison and instead serve a fraction of that time from home. 

“We were hoping for justice and we didn’t get justice today,” said David Gregory in 2019. Gregory’s daughter died in the fire. 

When he was convicted in 2021, Almena had accumulated credit for sitting in jail for three-and-a-half years and good behavior. He was then under house arrest with family for another year-and-a-half because of the pandemic. 

And now Almena could face jail time for possibly violating probation after weapons were allegedly found in his Lake County home. 

There was more uproar when the property owners weren’t criminally charged. Instead, the Ng family settled a lawsuit with the families of both victims and survivors last year, then filed for bankruptcy to pay them $11.8 million. The City of Oakland also settled a lawsuit in the deaths, paying out tens of millions more. 

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The ruins of the former warehouse still stand today. It’s not clear what will take its place once the property is sold. 

But family members of victims have shared that they don’t want a memorial and instead would like to see it put to other use that would benefit the community. Almena is due back in court Dec. 16 for a hearing that will look into whether he violated his probation.