2 families of Oakland warehouse fire victims file lawsuits

Two sets of parents whose children were killed in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire filed lawsuits Friday
The Ghost Ship warehouse that burned down, killing 36, in Oakland, Calif., Dec. 10, 2016.
The Ghost Ship warehouse that burned down, killing 36, in Oakland, Calif., Dec. 10, 2016.

OAKLAND, Calif. — Two sets of parents whose children were killed in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire filed lawsuits Friday, the first litigation to come out of the deadly blaze that ripped through the converted warehouse during an electronic music event three weeks ago.

Relatives of 20-year-old Michela Gregory and 23-year-old Griffin Madden sued a litany of people who allegedly created a dangerous environment that led to the deaths of 36 people during a party Dec. 2 in the Fruitvale neighborhood.

Accused in the lawsuits were building owner Chor Ng, primary tenant Derick Ion Almena and his wife, Micah Allison, event promoter Jon Hrabko and Joel Shanahan — the performer known as “Golden Donna,” said San Francisco attorney Mary Alexander, who is representing the two families. Also named in the lawsuits were a next-door business that shared its electricity, and others involved with the show on the night of the fire.

The parents filed claims against the city of Oakland and Alameda County on Friday as well, Alexander said, which are precursors to litigation. Although state law provides a broad liability shield for local governments for failing to conduct building inspections, Alexander said the immunity is “not insurmountable.”

Gregory, who grew up in San Bruno, studied child development at San Francisco State University and worked at Urban Outfitters in San Francisco’s Fillmore district. She died alongside her boyfriend, 22-year-old Alex Vega.

“She’s never coming home,” David Gregory, her father, said outside Alameda County court on Friday. “We’ll never see her again.”

Madden, meanwhile, had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley last year with a double major in philosophy and Slavic Languages and Literature. He had been working for Cal Performances.

The inferno inside the converted warehouse at 31st Avenue and International Boulevard was the deadliest structure fire in California since 1906 and the worst nationwide since 2003.

Survivors and former tenants of the warehouse described it as a labyrinth of furniture, musical instruments, art pieces and reclaimed wood with tangles of electronic wires and extension cords. The warehouse was home to the Satya Yuga artist collective.

There were no sprinklers in the building, and neither of the two stairwells led to an exit, said officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the agency investigating the fire.

Court papers filed by the families describe the warehouse as a “death trap” without proper fire safety measures. A small refrigerator fire was quickly extinguished by residents a day before the disastrous blaze, according to the lawsuits. The electrical system often released sparks, and circuit breakers were known to blow out because of overloaded electrical lines, the suits alleged.

The lawsuits said Gregory and Madden did not die instantaneously, and instead suffered for “many minutes” and were injured trying to escape.

“They had every gift but the gift of time,” Alexander said at a news conference, standing in front of Gregory’s grim-faced parents.

Investigators have yet to identify a cause of the fire. They said it originated near a downstairs wall at the back of the warehouse and spread rapidly throughout the building, overwhelming people upstairs with thick smoke before many had a chance to escape. They have found no evidence of arson.

No city records have surfaced of fire inspectors ever examining the warehouse.

Attorneys retained by Ng, the building owner, and Almena, the primary tenant and Ghost Ship leader, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the litigation.

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