Oakland releases 50-page report detailing Ghost Ship fire

Audrey McNamara/File

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Oakland Fire Department released the long-awaited Ghost Ship fire report — describing in harrowing detail the origin and cause of the Dec. 2 tragedy that claimed 36 lives.

The report explains the actions taken by the 52 firefighters who responded to the initial scene that Friday night around 11:24 p.m. It goes on to catalog the following six-month investigation, extensively describing the debris and witness interviews.

The investigation was carried out by a team of 17 fire investigators from three separate departments: three from Oakland Fire Department, nine from Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and five from Alameda County Arson Task Force.

Analysis of fire effects, such as char and heat and flame vector, indicates the fire originated in the northwest area of the first floor. The cause remains undetermined.

“Fire investigation is one of the hardest kinds of forensic investigations; it destroys more evidence than it produces,” said John DeHaan, a retired fire forensic scientist.

According to DeHaan, in order to determine a fire’s cause, investigators must conclusively identify the “first fuel, energy fuel and circumstances” that created the fire.

The report states that the building was not equipped with sprinklers or an automatic fire detection system. One battery-operated smoke detector was found in the debris.

People fleeing the warehouse flames ran to nearby Oakland Fire Station No. 13 on Derby Avenue, one block away from the fire. “According to firefighters, people were knocking on the fire station doors when the firefighters were getting ready to respond to the fire, having received notification from Oakland Fire Dispatch,” the report read.

In the initial scene interviews, the building owner said he had spent $30,000 to upgrade the warehouse’s electrical system only three years previously. The owner was unaware of any current electrical problems as he had not been in the structure for at least one and a half years.

Derick Almena leased the building for the past two and half years. Almena and creative director Max Harris were arrested on 36 counts of alleged manslaughter earlier this month.

The cause of death for all 36 victims was smoke inhalation, according to Alameda County coroner autopsy results included in the report.

Electrical service to the building was provided via an overhead service drop from a pole. Visual examination of the warehouse electrical configuration “revealed modifications to the electrical systems.”

Instead of using the established electrical units such as outlets, occupants explained that power strips with unknown origins were used for power.

According to Carmen Brito, who lived in a space on the lower level in the rear of the warehouse, flames, already about 8 feet tall, surrounded a refrigerator that had recently been installed “against the wishes of many of the tenants, due to the many electrical problems in the building.”

Examination of potential heat sources included spontaneous combustion, electrical systems, intentionally introduced heat source, propane systems, natural gas systems, smoking materials and candles/incense. Electrical systems listed the most detailed explanation.

Investigators were not able to determine how many electrical outlets or appliances the warehouse contained, nor how they were powered.

“There were so many potential accidental sources that you couldn’t make a weighted average for one,” DeHaan said.

Audrey McNamara is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @McNamaraAud.