OAKLAND, Calif. — It’s been three years since 36 people — artists, students, parents, and sons and daughters — stepped inside the Ghost Ship warehouse for a party and never came back out of what has been described as a fire trap.

The death of the 36 victims in Oakland’s deadliest fire has had a ripple effect on many — their family members and friends who are reminded of their loss every day, the city officials who have been criticized for ignoring signs that people were living inside the warehouse and the two men accused of being responsible for their deaths.

At 11:20 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2016, a blaze broke out during a dance party and quickly spread throughout the cluttered warehouse, which had illegally been converted to a living quarters for a collective of artists. Within minutes, 36 people died by smoke inhalation, making it the deadliest structure fire in modern California history. In their last moments, some victims texted loved ones parting messages such as “I’m gonna die now” or “I love you. Fire.”

For David Gregory, whose 21-year-old daughter Michela Angelina Gregory perished in the fire, every day is a reminder of her death. Her room at home remains empty.

“I haven’t heard my daughter’s voice in three years, and I never will,” he said Monday in a phone meeting.

“There isn’t a day, minute or second we don’t think of our own daughter. Everywhere you go, you get reminded. We felt guilty for smiling and laughing … it never ends.”

This year, the Gregory family decided not to visit the warehouse itself, located on 31st Avenue in East Oakland, as they have done in the past with other victims’ family members. It was just too painful, he said.

But the flood of phone calls and messages from family and friends continued, even internationally. David Gregory said a cousin from Italy went to church to pray for his daughter, then went to the cemetery where her photo is on a plaque on his grandmother’s grave in Italy.

“This affects so many people, for generations to come,” he said.

For Colleen Dolan, the mother of Chelsea Faith Dolan, 33, the third-year anniversary is also painful. For only the second time since her daughter’s death, she opened the box that was sent to her by the coroner that contained the clothes Chelsea wore that night. It was the only memorial she could stand this year, her mother said.

Chelsea’s blue fake leather coat is singed on the back and arms, her favorite turquoise and black scarf is covered in soot. She also had a gold and black tank top, a see-through tunic, zebra tights, a black mini-skirt and her favorite black boots that her mom gave her for her birthday the September before.

“The black clothes are uncharacteristic for Chelsea, who was always so colorful. It’s almost as if she were going to a funeral,” Dolan said.

On Monday afternoon, Ross Clark, who was friends with Chelsea Dolan and knew others who died, stopped by the warehouse. He said it was a shame to see the tragedy that rocked the arts and dance community and the politics following it, when there “was only ever good intentions behind it.”

“I think that it really highlighted a point that having events in these spaces, it does require a certain amount of accountability and professionalism,” he said.

There’s also frustration, the feeling of being in limbo in terms of justice, David Gregory said. On Sept. 5, defendant Max Harris was acquitted of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter after a grueling four-month-long trial. The jury couldn’t agree on a verdict for co-defendant Derick Almena, deadlocking 10-2 in favor of guilt. He is awaiting another trial, expected to begin March 30.

“They really left a bitter taste in our mouths,” Gregory said, stating he didn’t get the outcome he was hoping for.

“I just hope the jury this time pays attention,” he said.

The civil case, which 33 family members of some of the victims have filed against the city, PG&E and the building owners, is expected to begin in May.

The city has turned over about 32,000 documents, videos and photos to civil attorneys representing the families, and depositions of city firefighters, police officers and other officials are underway.

“All these plaintiffs have been waiting for justice for quite some time. It’s time for city of Oakland, PG&E and the Ngs to face their music,” said Paul Matiasic, who represents four of the 33 families who filed suit.

Since PG&E filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, the plaintiffs in the civil suit also filed a motion asking the bankruptcy court to allow them to “have their day in court.” Because of the bankruptcy, the case is in a holding pattern, he said.

Matiasic said he doesn’t think Almena’s impending trial should affect the start of the civil case, since the testimony and evidence have already been heard.

Prosecutors alleged Almena was the mastermind behind the conversion of the former dairy storage warehouse to a residence, inviting people to live inside in a community setting. Harris, who moved in sometime in late 2014, served as the “creative director” or second-in-command to Almena, they alleged, helping organize events and collecting rent.

Almena was the Ghost Ship’s master lease-holder, having co-signed in November 2013 to rent the building owned by the Ng family. The Ngs and Almena agreed the space would be used by an artists collective to create artwork and hold community workshops and classes.

Prosecutors had alleged Almena and Harris helped create a death trap by filling the warehouse from floor to ceiling with artwork, pianos and even RVs. Those items quickly ignited, and the flames caused heavy smoke. All of the victims died of smoke inhalation.

No fire sprinklers had been installed or lighted exit signs put up, and partygoers who tried to flee by descending the narrow, unstable makeshift front stairs from the second floor couldn’t move fast enough to escape. Prosecutors contended the defendants committed nine violations of Oakland’s fire code, including not obtaining permits for assembly, storing vehicles and failing to provide fire sprinklers or fire alarms. Police showed up on multiple occasions in calls to the warehouse, and video from their body camera footage showed Almena telling them no one lived inside.

Almena rented the warehouse from the owners, Chor Ng, and her daughter Eva Ng and son Kai Ng. Despite pleas from victims’ family members, and even the Harris defense attorneys, that the Ngs should also have been criminally charged, they never were.

The third-year anniversary of the deadly fire also marks when the statute of limitations runs out on filing criminal charges.

Now that the statute of limitations has passed, the Ngs are expected to give depositions in the civil case, which could occur at the start of the new year.

Those killed in the Ghost Ship fire are: Cash Askew, Jonathan Bernbaum, Matthew Bohlka a.k.a. Em Bohlka, Barrett Clark, David Cline, Micah Krueger Danemayer, William Emerson Dixon, Chelsea Faith Dolan, Justin Riley Fritz a.k.a Feral Pines, Alex Ghassan, Michela Angelina Gregory, Nicholas Gomez Hall, Sara Hoda, Travis Hough, John Igaz, Ara Jo, Donna Eileen Kellogg, Amanda Kershaw, Edmond William Lapine II, Griffin Madden, Joseph “Casio” Matlock, Jason McCarty, Draven McGill, Jennifer Mendiola, Jennifer Morris, Vanessa Plotkin, Wolfgang Renner, Hanna Ruax, Benjamin Runnels, Nicole Renae Siegrist, Michele Sylvan, Jennifer Tanouye, Alex Benjamin Vega, Peter Wadsworth, Nicholas Walrath and Brandon Chase Wittenauer.


(Staff writer David DeBolt and staff photographer Jane Tyska contributed to this story.)


©2019 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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