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Two years before 36 partygoers died in the Ghost Ship warehouse inferno, Oakland firefighters toured the cluttered firetrap, even dancing in the same second-story performance space where the victims would huddle in their final moments, according to witnesses and documents.
The visits started Sept. 26, 2014, a Friday, when firefighters extinguished a couch fire outside the warehouse artists’ collective on 31st Avenue before touring the eclectic interior, people who saw them inside the building said. One firefighter called it a “museum” and stopped to play one of the many pianos scattered around the space cluttered with wood and furniture stacked to the ceilings. Another firefighter told master tenant Derick Almena that as long as there were marked fire exits, they’d be OK, a resident who overheard the conversation told this newspaper.
The next day, firefighters returned — twice — hanging out for hours inside the warehouse as a private party with live bands raged upstairs and chefs roasted a pig outside, multiple attendees said.
Several illegal living spaces had been created within the warehouse, and during those two days it was “completely packed with stuff,” said people who were there that weekend. Firefighters would have seen the clutter and a maze of small passageways carved from it on the warehouse’s ground floor, a spider web of extension cords and the now-infamous makeshift staircase cobbled together from wooden pallets that led to the upstairs’ performance space.
The stunning revelations are the most disturbing indications so far that city employees knew of the Ghost Ship’s troubling infrastructure and illegal parties years before the fatal fire, but the fire department has found no records of efforts to enforce fire codes. As they raced to the Dec. 2 blaze, firefighters have said they talked among themselves about the warehouse having safety issues and what they might face when they arrived. Documents show police were alerted to people living inside the warehouse illegally, as well as holding an “illegal rave,” and building inspectors were investigating illegal structures inside the space in the weeks before the deadly fire.
The firefighters who apparently attended the 2014 party never reported their concerns, or made sure the building was inspected. Told Wednesday of this newspaper’s findings, acting fire Chief Mark Hoffmann said he would open an immediate investigation.
“I am saddened to hear this,” he said. “I can’t defend their actions.”