Inside the Oakland Party Fire: One Rickety Staircase in a ‘Tinderbox’
At least 30 are dead after a building went up in flames Friday night. I was there and saw why it was so dangerous.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated throughout.
OAKLAND, California—The only way to the second floor of the warehouse known as the Ghost Ship was up a rickety staircase constructed of wood pallets.
The makeshift staircase felt unsteady as I walked up it on Friday night to check out the party upstairs hosted by the art collective Satya Yuga, a group of artists that builds spaces for festivals like Burning Man. Up there my friends and I saw a woman getting her nails painted. There was a DJ booth, music playing, a few people dancing. Mostly, it was people just hanging out.
Downstairs, the space was packed with wooden pieces of artwork. There were wooden accents on the walls, a wooden ship’s wheel. The space was subdivided into rooms with walls made of aged, dried-out wood. Chairs were scattered on the sides with Persian rugs in between them.
My friends and I stepped out to a nearby liquor store to grab a beer and when we got back 10 minutes later, the building was on fire.
“That place was a tinderbox,” one of my friends later said.
It was just before midnight on Friday near the corner of 31st and International in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, where at least 30 people died in what’s believed to be one of the worst fires in the city’s history.
Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed told reporters most of those found dead were on the second floor of the building, where the wooden plank led. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, much of the building still needs to be searched. Reed told the paper that there was no evidence that inside there was a sprinkler system, and that the cause of the fire was not immediately known.
The East Bay Express reported Saturday that city inspectors received a complaint of "illegal structures" insidie but were unable to gain access during a visit three weeks ago. There were reports in past years, as well—the Chronicle reported that in 2014, “a large structure had been built at (the) property that had not been strapped down or stable," and that in 2008, Oakland received a complaint of "trash debris and overgrowth."
Across the street on the sidewalk, we spotted our friends. They were talking with a resident of the Ghost Ship behind the house when they heard people screaming “fire.” They squeezed through a gate and found safety outside the house. Dozens of others huddled close to their friends, watching as fire truck after fire truck arrived on the scene. In one final gasp, a group of people sprinted out of the entrance as a cloud of smoke followed behind them.
We stood on the sidewalk for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, watching the smoke turn to flames, hoping and praying everyone had gotten out safely.
The Golden Donna 100 Percent Silk act was scheduled to perform in a celebration of the community. Instead, the community this morning is sharing a Google doc being shared with the names of the people who are thought to be missing. As of now, two on the spreadsheet are reported as safe, and two are reported as in the hospital.