Oakland fire investigation continues as new victims are identified

The Oakland Ghost Ship fire claimed the lives of 36 victims in an accident that is still under investigation.

One SF State student and one alumna are among the victims of the artist-based warehouse in the Fruitvale District of Oakland last Friday night.

Twenty-year-old Michela Gregory and Donna Kellogg, 32, died on Dec. 2 when a fire quickly spread through the art studio and adapted housing facility locally known as the Ghost Ship. The fire, since identified by CNN as one of the deadliest in Oakland’s recorded history, occurred during a music performance being hosted at the warehouse.

Kellogg, an SF State graduate, was passionate about nutrition and was pursuing a degree in culinary arts at Laney College in Oakland, according to SF Gate. She was among the first people to be identified over the weekend as friends and relatives turned to social media to learn about their loved ones.

The families of Michela Gregory and Alex Vega, Gregory’s boyfriend of five years, said the young couple enjoyed going to rave parties in Oakland and San Francisco. Gregory was confirmed to be among the deceased early on Sunday by a Facebook message posted by her mother, Kimberly Gregory. Vega, was also identified as one of the deceased on Tuesday afternoon.

“They were such a cute couple,” Jesus Peraza, 19, Michela’s former coworker, said. “She was such a kind, gentle and patient person, that’s what hurts the most. The loss of an amazing human being.”

Of the 36 bodies recovered from the ruins of the two-story have been identified after four days of arduous work from city, state and federal agencies, according to KPIX.

“You never think that there can be danger when you go to these places. Now I think about it. It is as important to have fun as it is to be safe,” Peraza said.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said at a press conference on Dec. 4 that identifying the victims may take weeks using DNA and dental records.

James McMullen, a former California state fire marshall, told CNN that they are moving slowly and carefully through the debris so as not to compromise any evidence that can help determine the cause of the fire. The structure’s instability is another large challenge to the recovery activities.

In the wake of the fire, questions have been raised about the condition of the building, who to hold accountable for the fire and why people chose to live in place that lacked safety measures.

With no sprinklers and no fire alarms on site, artists living in the building and people attending the music show, featuring musician Golden Donna’s 100% Silk West Coast tour, had little time to react and find one of the only two exits.

The property is zoned as a warehouse and not for residential use, although many people appeared to be living there. Josette Melchor told CNN that people do not report violations out of fear of losing a place to live and leaving others without a roof.

Melchor, an executive director of Gray Area Foundations of the Arts, also said Derick Ion Almena, who was in charge of the lease, hosted events like the one on Friday to help pay rent at the artist collective space.

Kelly told CNN that the warehouse was filled with recreational vehicles, wooden furniture such as beds and pianos and art made by the 24 to 25 artists who lived in the building.

Former tenants said people living there would use illegal electricity hookups, according to the New York Daily News. The warehouse had a pending investigation after a House Habitability complaint was filed last Nov.14.

Neighbors warned Almena about past building safety issues. He stayed at a hotel room with his kids and wife to avoid the loud music on Friday night, according to the Atlantic.

Questions about Almena’s innocence and responsibility emerged as information about his criminal records and history of violent confrontations with co-workers have been brought to light with documents obtained by SF Gate .

Torrienne Ellis-Downs, a 23-year-old Bay Area native, lost friend David Cline in the fire.

 

“Last time we hung out was at [a friend’s] birthday, and his laugh was pretty stellar,” she said.

A former resident and jewelry maker, Shelly Mack, told CNN that transformers blew up from time to time in the building. Mack says authorities were aware of the conditions of the warehouse as she personally called to inform them about the irregularities within the building.

The fire is shedding light on how the housing crisis continues to affect the Bay Area. A major reason people seek living arrangements like the Ghost Ship is to reduce the cost of living in a city where rent continues to increase, according to NBC NEWS.

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