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Three years later, tragedy of Ghost Ship fire still affects many lives

Angela Ruggiero, The Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

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.)

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