Friends of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire pay tribute at a memorial marking the one year anniversary of the fire. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)
The two defendants in the deadly Oakland warehouse fire case are expected to be sentenced this week, marking the end of a major chapter in one of the Bay Area’s worst tragedies.
The Ghost Ship warehouse’s main leaseholder, Derick Almena, and tenant Max Harris were arrested in June 2017.
Last month, they pleaded no contest to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Almena and Harris each faced up to 39-year sentences. But under the terms of a plea agreement, they may end up serving less than 10 years behind bars.
David Gregory, the father of one of the victims, Michela Gregory, said this isn't enough.
"We just wanted some justice, some fair justice," Gregory said at last month's plea agreement hearing at Alameda County Superior Court. "We don’t feel that was fair justice."
The fire was the most severe in Oakland's history. Warehouse resident Nikki Kelber escaped the burning building after flames broke out at the illegal living space during an unpermitted party on Dec. 2, 2016.
"I was hit with a huge cloud of black smoke that almost knocked me out," Kelber said to KQED the morning after the disaster. "That’s when the power went out. I had to know how far to jump over my steps because I couldn’t see them."
It took three days for firefighters to recover all of the 36 bodies from the collapsed building. On Dec. 4 2016, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office launched a criminal investigation.
A February 2017 report pointed to the warehouse’s crumbling electrics as a possible cause.
Meanwhile, members of the local creative community blamed rising rents and a lack of code enforcement for forcing people to accept dangerous living conditions.
"Some artists know that the building’s not up to code or isn’t safe," Walter Craven, the owner of a nearby artists' collective, told KQED at a fundraiser for the families of the fire victims. "But what other choices do they have? Where else can they go?"
Almena has been held in jail for the past year. His wife, Micah Allison, said her husband is crippled with remorse.
"He's been going through so much," Allison said in a phone interview the day before the scheduled formal sentencing. "Massive grief and disillusionment and confusion."
The fire's origin remains inconclusive. The warehouse hadn't been inspected in decades, and the City of Oakland, property owner Chor Ng, and Almena were allegedly all aware of building's dilapidated state.
A civil lawsuit against the City of Oakland and the property owner is ongoing.