Almost five years after a fire ravaged the Ghost Ship warehouse and killed three dozen people, the final chapter in legal proceedings related to the tragedy is drawing to a close.
The Ng family, owners of the Fruitvale District apartment building, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 30 and wrote in their court petition that they plan to liquidate their assets in order to pay off around $ 11.8 million. to the survivors and families of the 36 people who died in hell on December 2, 2016.
The families of the victims and survivors sued Chor Nar Siu Ng and his children Eva Ng and Kai Ng as well as the City of Oakland, PG&E, party promoters and master tenant Derick Almena, alleging that the landlord was partly responsible. of the conditions that caused the fire. About 80 plaintiffs filed complaints, and the filings were consolidated into one massive case.
The proposed settlement would end the civil lawsuit. Last year, the city of Oakland settled the case, agreeing to pay $ 23.5 million to the families of the victims and $ 9.2 million to Samuel Maxwell. Maxwell survived the fire but was seriously injured. The amount of PG&E settlement, also finalized in 2020, is confidential.
Under Ng’s bankruptcy plan, more than half of the $ 11.8 million would be paid out of the family’s insurance coverage. A dozen Ghost Ship residents who lost their homes and belongings to the fire will also receive a share of the settlement.
The Ng family, led by matriarch Chor Ng, purchased the former 10,000 square foot dairy factory in the late 1980s. The property extended around the intersection of 31st Avenue and International Boulevard to include , at the time of the fire, the Ghost Ship, which was a studio, event space and living quarters, as well as an auto body shop, cell phone store, and shoe store.
Chor Ng’s children, Kai and Eva Ng, worked as warehouse property managers and were also named as defendants in the lawsuit.
The terms of the proposed settlement were negotiated by lawyers representing the victims of the ghost ship and the Ngs. Once it is finalized and approved by the bankruptcy court, the Ng will pay $ 6 million in insurance into a trust for victims. The Ngs would be required to make another upfront payment of $ 1 million.
The remainder, estimated at $ 4.8 million, is believed to come from the proceeds from the sale of their properties, including the sale of the Ghost Ship warehouse, which has been charred and empty for nearly five years. If the sale of the liquidated properties exceeds $ 4.8 million, any excess money from the sale would also be placed in the Victims and Survivors Trust.
A laundromat in San Francisco and commercial and residential properties in Oakland’s Chinatown complete the family’s real estate portfolio. The bankruptcy court will oversee the sales.
For some families, it wasn’t just about money – they wanted to see owners held criminally responsible for the deadliest single structure fire in California history.
“This is the end of a long journey for these families,” said plaintiffs lawyer Mary Alexander. “They are disappointed that the Ng have not been held criminally responsible. As the owner of a building, you have a duty to secure it and to know what is going on in your building. Here they claim they didn’t know it and of course they did. There is evidence that they would come to the building to collect the rent and make repairs.
Although the exact cause of the blaze has not been determined, Oakland fire officials said it appeared to be electrical in nature. Utility records showed that all properties owned by Ng on 31st Avenue and International Boulevard shared the same bill and the same PG&E meter.
The current entered Ghost Ship’s warehouse through a hole in the wall shared by the artist collective and the auto body shop. Residents over 20, living in a space zoned for commercial purposes only, used a network of extension cords to power their spaces and the unauthorized event space on the second floor. Breakdowns were frequent.
According to emails obtained by the Bay Area News Group, Kai Ng was aware of poor electrical conditions and approved an unlicensed electrician to install a transformer in the auto body shop. In a February 2015 email to main tenant Almena, the property manager wrote: “The lack of electrical infrastructure was made very clear before the start of your lease. Almena co-signed the lease in November 2013.
An invoice sent by an unlicensed contractor to Kai and Eva Ng also showed that they had been made aware of a small electrical fire in the auto body shop in 2014. The fire was most likely caused by a system. power supply “catastrophic overload”, according to the invoice.
Bankruptcy attorneys representing Chor, Kai and Eva Ng did not respond to an email sent Monday morning seeking comment.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office considered criminal charges against members of the Ng family, but only charged Almena and Max Harris, who collected rent from tenants and worked as the manager of the property. warehouse.
The prosecutor’s office and O’Malley have not publicly explained why the Ngs had not been criminally charged. Unlike Almena who gave interviews to national and local television stations, the Ngs remained silent and refused to give evidence in the civil trial.
Alameda District Attorney Nancy O’Malley rarely spoke about the decision not to charge the owners, but said “the owner had a level of separation from what was actually going on in the building.”
“Certainly [Kai Ng] has some liability, ”O’Malley told the East Bay Times in April 2018.
O’Malley said it was Almena and Harris who created a dangerous environment. The warehouse, if properly inspected by city authorities, would have been closed due to piles of wood, pianos, motorhomes and lofts and other flammable materials piled up inside, where no one was allowed to live.
City records show police and firefighters have been called to the warehouse dozens of times. Fire crews from Station 13, located about 100 meters from the warehouse, knew Almena by name and were inside. A day after an arson attack outside, firefighters showed up at a party and roast pork. A fire brigade lieutenant at Station 13 said he sent a letter to the OFD administration expressing concerns about the unsafe conditions. The Oakland Fire Marshal later said he could not find the document. Another fire lieutenant attended a holiday party at the ghost ship for his wife’s school faculty, which Almena’s children attended.
During the criminal trial, defense attorneys representing Almena and Harris attempted to lay the blame on the city and the Ngs. A jury acquitted Harris and considered whether to convict Almena on 36 counts of manslaughter. Almena eventually struck a plea deal allowing her to serve her house arrest and probation sentence in Lake County, where his wife and three children moved after the fatal fire. Harris moved to Portland, Oregon after his acquittal.
Kai Ng, in a video taken by a police officer’s body camera the night of the fire, told an Oakland officer, “Nobody is supposed to live there, it’s an artist’s studio… They say they sometimes spend the night there because (doing) plans. This is what they tell me. I say if they work it’s fine but you can’t live there.
Alexander said the Ngs allowed Almena “to build it, divide it into living spaces, and set up a rickety second floor for an event space they knew or should have known was being used for parties and events. musical events when it was not allowed for this kind of event stuff. ”
All but one of the people who died in the fire were visiting that evening for a dance party on the second floor.
“It was basically an illegal cabaret and they (the Ngs) did nothing to protect the public and the people who lived there,” Alexander said.