Wednesday marks the fourth anniversary of the still unexplained Ghost Ship fire that claimed 36 lives in Oakland. But new revelations may finally solve the mystery of how the fire started.
It’s a day Carmen Brito says is indelibly seared into her memory.
“I got dressed up to go out -- I ended up falling asleep and I woke up to my house on fire,” Brito recalled about the night flames tore through the once thriving and cluttered warehouse artist collective.
Still grieving for lost friends, she summoned the strength to guide Oakland investigators through the ruins, pointing to where she had seen flames near an old refrigerator that had been installed in the first-floor kitchen a week earlier.
“I said this is where you need to look,” said Brito during a recent interview outside the boarded up industrial building and the elaborate sidewalk memorial to the victims. “I did it because I wanted answers -- not just for myself but I wanted it for those families.”
But Brito says she still doesn’t have those answers. Even after a multi-agency arson probe, a lengthy criminal trial and massive wrongful death litigation.
But some of the evidence compiled during the investigation points to what could provide a key to the mystery of what sparked the fire. The official report cited an unspecific electrical problem, but never identified the exact cause.
Did investigators miss something? The Investigative Unit took more than 200 investigative photos and other never-before released evidence we obtained from a source close to the case to fire scientist and mechanical engineer Bernard Cuzzillo.
The Berkeley-based expert has testified as a forensic witness in hundreds of cases.
He pointed to an x-ray image of what remains of an electrical outlet that had powered the refrigerator Brito had pointed out to investigators. He says there are two screws – typically used to attach electrical wires to the outlet – that have shifted out of position.
“That side of the receptacle had overheated and melted,” he said, noting that the metal screws likely shifted because the plastic housing of the outlet collapsed due to high heat.
He says there is a clue for what might have caused that heat. Turns out that the refrigerator was not plugged directly into that outlet. It was connected into a power strip whose cord ran to the outlet.
Such strips have long been associated with overheating outlet connections when used to power refrigerators. Experts say refrigerator compressor motors need extra current to kick on, and power strips can block some of that current, slowing down the start-up process while at the same time causing the circuit to overheat.
“It’s fairly strong evidence that this was the culprit,” Cuzzillo said.
But since the refrigerator had operated after being plugged into the strip for a full week before the fire, Cuzzillo suspects another source of heating – the amplifier that a DJ turned on to provide electronic dance music that night.
“Plugging in the amplifier just a few minutes before,” Cuzzillo said, “could increase the amount of heat dissipated at that connection and can cause a critical increase of temperature at that connection.”
That’s because electronic amplifiers generate invisible, and normally harmless, electric fields. But such a surge of energy, he says, can be concentrated at any exposed nearby wire or faulty connection, such as the outlet and strip used to power the refrigerator.
The heat from both the power strip and the amp, he says, could easily have been a deadly combination.
But the final Oakland fire report does not mention any amp, or account for what caused melting at the outlet. It does confirm what Brito suspected, that the fire did erupt near that refrigerator.
Oakland officials said they could not comment on the case because there is still pending litigation after a nearly $33 million settlement reached earlier this year over building inspection lapses.
Despite the unknown cause, master tenant Derick Almena and his assistant Max Harris went on trial for allegedly leaving the warehouse a cluttered and unsafe firetrap. The jury acquitted Harris, but deadlocked on Almena, who awaits retrial. His lawyer blames the fire on arson.
Carmen Brito told us she still holds out hope that Ghost Ship families will one day learn the full story.
“The most frustrating part of this whole thing, is that I still encounter people who don’t really understand what happened -- and they’ve lost somebody, and they don’t have that resolution,” she said. “Those families don’t have closure because they’ve never been given the truth. There’s no justice without that.’’