OAKLAND, Calif. — The warehouse gutted by a blaze that killed at least nine people was home to musicians, painters, woodworkers, dancers and other artists who came together to make art and hold dance performances and parties. It was also a source of many complaints from neighbors.
The building known as the "Ghost Ship" located in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood was not zoned for people to live in, but neighbors had filed complaints saying the warehouse packed with pianos, paintings, turntables, statues, beds, couches and even a "coffin," apparently was being used as a party venue and living quarters.
Photos of the interior showed a hodgepodge Bohemian scene of Tibetan prayer flags, Christmas lights and scores of wooden statues of Buddha, the virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, elephants and dragons that sat atop pianos and turntables. Tapestries hung from the walls, mannequin legs and arms stuck out from the ceiling, while rolled-up rugs sat in corners. A small, clear wooden spot of floor was at times used for art performances.
"It was just a labyrinth of little areas," said Deputy Fire Chief Mark Hoffmann.
A second-story mezzanine had been built without permits and could only be accessed through a makeshift stairwell of wooden pallets, Hoffman said.
Photographer Bob Mule told reporters the warehouse was a 24-hour art collective where 18 artists, including him, often worked.
Steven Anguiano said he enjoyed spending time at the artist collective because of the people.
"It was always a welcoming environment, going there to enjoy a good time, meet new people and artists, talk to artists and have this real social network, inspiring artists and connective communities all around Oakland and San Francisco. Around the world, to be honest," Anguiano said.
Oakland city officials began investigating blight and illegal construction reports as recently as three weeks ago. Darin Ranelletti, of the City of Oakland Planning Department, said the property was only permitted to be used as a warehouse and that investigators had visited it as recently as Nov. 17 to check on complaints of unpermitted construction but they were not able to enter the building.
"Permits would be needed for people to live in the buildings and those permits have not been issued," he said.
He said no permits were issued for a party Friday night.
Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo, who represents the Fruitvale district and lives a block from the burned-out warehouse, said the building had been a problem for several years and many residents had complained.
"We were reporting the issues when it came to the illegal dumping ... creating the rooms, there's no permits," he said. "Whether it's law enforcement or the fire enforcement, we need to be more aggressive" about ensuring property owners are held accountable, he said.
A Facebook page for the Satya Yuga collective, which also was housed at the 4,000-square-foot structure, described it as an unprecedented "earth home bomb bunker helter skelter spelunker shelters and Indonesian straw huts rolling into valleys and down alleys."
A family friend, Danielle Boudreaux, identified Derick Ion Almena as the operator of the collective. A man known as Derick Ion posted a Facebook message early Saturday saying he was grateful his family was not there at the time but saddened at the loss of the collective.
"Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound," Ion wrote.
Ion's post elicited several angry responses.
"Are you seriously posting about the loss of our material possessions when your death trap murdered our friends?" Luna Xix wrote.
Rodriguez reported from San Francisco.