Even as the ATF came out Tuesday and said agents had no final determination on what caused the Oakland warehouse fire, guests who have spent time inside the building described nothing short of an electrical mess.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent in charge, Jill Snyder, conceded at a news conference that the electrical system inside the ‘Ghost Ship’ building at 1305 E. 31st Ave. is being looked at as one possible cause of the Dec. 2 fire that killed 36 people.
One Oakland couple who escaped the building as smoke billowed from the floorboards, and who asked to remain anonymous, said the sound system that was playing electronic dance music that night was booming and overpowering.
Shaan Dimri, an Oakland-based music director and producer who filmed what might be the only documented professional music video shot inside the warehouse back in 2014, detailed a laundry list of lighting and other hazards he witnessed inside the makeshift artists collective.
“Looking back and thinking about all the cords, electrical equipment, lights, and other things that require power, I wondered, ‘how the hell do they get enough power for all this stuff?’” Dimri said “The answer was they basically re-routed power and ‘stole’ it from other surrounding areas. It was just a matter of time before all this unregulated stuff would come to a halt.”
The Oakland warehouse did not have any sprinklers or fire alarms, according to city officials, and city inspectors had not been inside the property for 30 years because nobody had complained about it.
Dimri lost his classmate, Jonathan Bernbaum, in the Ghost Ship fire. The two attended to film school together at the University of Southern California. "He was an outstanding human being,” Dimri said. “He was playing at the Ghost Ship that night and I was planning to go. But I have a one-year-old son so I decided to stay in.”
The next morning, Dimri heard about the fire from ROCChilds, the band whose music video he directed inside the warehouse. “I don’t live that far from the building so I raced up East 14th to see it for myself. It was heartbreaking because of the victims it left in its wake,” he said. “But all I could think about was that it was only a matter of time before something like this would have happened. It is very tragic and negligent but when you are in that art community, a lot of art is based on risk and defying the rules."
Dimri said he had last visited the warehouse at the beginning of this year, to location scout for another music video. “That place had like 20 something different backgrounds — filming in there was definitely an experience. It was a dream come true for any set designer,” he said. “It did not matter what kind of setting or background that you wanted, you could make it happen in there.”
Dimri vividly remembers the second-floor living space that belonged to Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison — the couple who ran the Satya Yuga art collective, and who some blame for the tragic inferno.
“It was set up like a sultan’s harem in the Ottoman Empire," Dimri said. "It had an Arabic touch with many colorful silk sheets and cushions all over the place. Gold was a common theme.”
Parts of the top floor looked like the movie Terminator had been shot there, crammed with technology from the 70s, 80s and 90s: “robot body parts, 8-track players, record players, phonographs, boom boxes, VCRs, gramophones, amplifiers, records, cassettes, etc. etc,” Dimri said.
Some rooms looked vintage, Dimri said: “French revolutionary stuff with guillotines and all. Other rooms looked like they were out of a pirate ship.”
"It was absolutely beautiful,” he said. “When you talk about a pure venue that is there for the art and the art only, there is no place like the Ghost Ship building. Now did the place look like it was in compliance with any regulations? No.”
Dimri remembers meeting painters, sculptures, singers, deejays, dancers, and photographers, most of them transient, traveling to places like India, Thailand and Argentina. “They were all using power for various forms of art, so they needed a lot of electricity to sustain their work,” he said. “I remember them having an overabundance of extension cords and so many lights all over the place — lights like Christmas flashing lights, halogens, kaleidoscopes, tungsten lights, 1K and 4K lights.”
Dimri said without lights, it would be impossible to walk into the building and find your way out.
“I can’t even imagine what the victims went through — I bet many passed away from trying to find an exit. With all the smoke, fire and darkness filling the air, it had to be damn near impossible to escape," he said.
While filming the music video, Dimri said he tracked down the circuit breaker so he could use the proper amperage for power to avoid any kind of accident. “The circuit breaker looked like it was already damaged,” he said. “I plugged in my lights and just hoped nothing would go wrong.”
Like others who’ve visited the warehouse, Dimri talked about the makeshift staircase inside the building. “Every time I walked on it, I felt like it was going to break and I was going to fall straight down,” he said. “It was built unregulated and with some of the cheapest and flimsiest wood.”
Everything in the building was made of wood, except for the room used as the backdrop for his video, which Dimri said was full of metal. “It looked like a death trap,” he said.
As for Ion, Dimri said he had “nothing but love for him.” “I had zero budget when I went in there to shoot the video. Derick was willing to act in the video and give me free reign to shoot in that building for free," he said.
More than twenty artists and residents who lived in the warehouse ended up taking part in the “Do Wants” video. “Nobody charged me anything,” Dimri said. “To me that’s unheard of because I have never used a location like that for free. I was a new struggling artist, and they sort of rallied for me. I will forever be grateful for that.”