Two days ago, late Friday December 2nd, a terrible fire on 31st Avenue in Oakland California claimed the lives of at least 24 people during a musical performance. Estimates of casualties go as high as 40, but as I type this the authorities on scene are proceeding with caution through the dangerously weak building. More are expected to be recovered.
The structure was a 4,032 square foot concrete warehouse converted into an eclectic art gallery and performance space called the Oakland Ghost Ship. Pianos, organs, clocks, paintings, vintage and antique furniture, varied benches, and vintage Hi-Fi Equipment were piled high up the walls and around open spaces. Any open wall space was covered in ‘random pieces of wood’. Furniture, cloth hangings and vintage light fixtures hung from ceilings. It was an ideal place for urban artists to display their work, but the fire on Saturday night has brought the dangerous conditions in the warehouse into sharp focus.
No fire exit, sprinklers, or smoke alarms have been recorded in the building. A survivor who tried fire extinguishers couldn’t get them to work. The single exit from the second floor was a staircase constructed of wooden pallets with no handrail – as a Boy Scout I can vouch that a stack of wooden pallets burns well. Most fires we build are constructed either in a teepee or log cabin formation very similar to stacked pallets. The pallet staircase was engulfed in flames and proved inadequate for escape.
The venue had illegal residents living there and illegal events regularly – the city of Oakland was already investigating before the fire. If the organizers and owner of the Ghost Ship has attempted to get the proper permits for the parties and live performances, or for rezoning the structure to residential living space, they would have been denied on allegations of unsafe conditions.
I have done much reading on history over the years, and spent some time on historically important fires. Just based on that knowledge, the lessons from fires as far back as 1903 have gone unheeded. The Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, the Collinwood School fire of 1908, the Cocoanut Grove club fire of 1942, the Our Lady of the Angels school fire of 1958, and the Station Nightclub fire of 2003 to name a few. The combined lessons of just these disasters alone, of clear un-bottlenecked egress, flammable materials on walls, floors, and ceilings, functioning fire alarms that contact the fire department, and readily accessible fire extinguishers (among others), totaling in over 1,464 deaths, were ignored in this instance.
This fire was needless and avoidable. Our safety codes are built on the ashen rubble of previous fires and are meant to protect the public from ever witnessing disasters like the Iroquois or Cocoanut Grove again. If you don’t read history and learn its lessons you’re doomed to repeat it, as evidenced by the burnt-out warehouse in Oakland today.
My heart goes out to the families of the victims, and to the responders sifting the rubble as we speak. Time will tell what comes from this disaster, but I doubt that there are any new lessons to learn from it. To offer support to those affected, there is a relief fund on YouCaring found here. God bless.