To set foot in the Ghost Ship on a party night was to pass through the doors of an old warehouse and enter an exotic world glowing with rainbow lanterns, guarded by figures of Asian deities and pulsing with a welcoming vibe.
Performers who came to play the electronic dance party last weekend and those looking to be awed by the sounds and scene wanted to be among people who accepted them for who they were. Straight, gay, transgender, black, white or multiethnic, they wanted a place to feel safe.
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“This party was a cross-section of all those communities,” said Nihar Bhatt, a DJ there to see friends perform. “This is a true counter culture. It’s why we call it the underground.”
But comfort among kindred spirits masked dangers that seem hard to have missed after fire raced through the building, killing 36 people in the deadliest U.S. structure fire since 2003.
It was a death trap with no fire alarms and no sprinklers. Two sets of stairs from the second-floor party did not lead to the only two exits.
For those who survived, it was largely a matter of luck that when the first cries of “fire” were heard, they were able to find their way through the smoke or were near enough to a door or already outside.
“To think when I was squeezing out of that gate there were people suffocating inside is such a horrific thought,” said Alastair Boone, who had been socializing in a side yard and escaped to the street through a fence. “People were dying right in front of me and I didn’t know.”
The Ghost Ship was one of many Oakland warehouses converted to work and living havens for musicians and artists. The communal living spaces have helped nurture a thriving underground art scene and provide space at a reasonable price in an area where astronomical rent hikes fueled by the tech boom have driven many people out.
The warehouse was home to the Satya Yuga Collective founded by Derick Ion Almena, who billed it on Facebook as a “helter skelter” bomb shelter and “Indonesian straw huts rolling into valleys and down alleys.”
It was in the industrial Fruitvale section of the city that is home to a large Latino population and features a bustling retail corridor of taco shops, check cashing businesses and a dress shop.
Almena and his partner, Micah Allison, leased the warehouse and rented out work and living space. Almena also rented it for occasional all-night parties. The couple and their three kids were not home the night of the fire.
The building owned by Chor N. Ng, however, was only permitted to be a warehouse and the city was investigating complaints about trash and people living inside.
A criminal investigation of the fire could lead to charges as serious as murder, prosecutors said.
The interior was constantly changing as tenants moved out and others took their place and redesigned more than a dozen living spaces.
Upstairs, a large public area was elaborately decorated in a Bohemian mélange of eastern religious artifacts, tapestries, old furniture and colorful prayer rugs. Organs, pianos and guitars were scattered throughout. Visitors described it as a beautiful work of art itself.
But hazards were many. It was a cluttered labyrinth built with scrap wood. Electrical cords snaked between appliances, musical equipment and lights. A set of stairs was assembled with stacked pallets and a wobbly ramp.
Bhatt was wary of all kinds of dangers. He wouldn’t promote a show there because he didn’t want that responsibility, but he was willing to compromise and take the risk of performing and attending events there.
Several of Bhatt’s friends were performing Dec. 2, playing a variety of electronic dance music that ranged from DJs mixing sounds to musicians playing synthesizers and drum machines.
He arrived before the fire broke out, but never entered because he was talking with friends out front. One of them, Joey Matlock, a DJ known as Joey Casio, had gone inside.
Bhatt heard someone yell, “fire,” and people began streaming out the door, followed by black smoke. Matlock was not one of them.
Investigators haven’t identified the cause of the fire, but they said it started in the rear of the building. They ruled out a refrigerator as the cause, but were still looking at electrical systems as possible sources.
Residents on the first floor described waking up to the smell of smoke and barely having time to get dressed before being chased out by a wall of flame. Some at the party upstairs were able to bypass the rickety makeshift stairs and jump from the loft in their haste to get out.
Christopher Farstad, a musician visiting from Minneapolis, inhaled a lungful of smoke when he stepped from a bathroom a moment before the lights went out.
After finding his way to safety through the dark, he tried to go back to help others. But the light on his phone wasn’t bright enough and the smoke was overpowering. He had walked in on his feet, but came out on his hands and knees.
He and others called for those lost inside: “Come this way! The exit’s over here!” they repeated.
Only a few came out.
People were weeping and embracing each other as firefighters tried to tame the flames. Bhatt stood there calling friends and kept learning of others close to him who were inside. He lost seven friends that night.
“When 20 minutes go by and you’re watching a fire rage, there was a part of me that hoped there was another place that people were exiting,” Bhatt said. “I didn’t want to say it out loud but this was pretty much over.”