In the wake of the tragic fire that has led to a death toll of 36 and rising at Oakland’s GhostShip artist commune, questions have been raised about the building’s safety issues and fire code lapses. Derick Ion Almena, manager of the property, was asked some of those questions in an early morning interview on TODAY Tuesday.
As you can see in the video above, Almena was clearly shaken by the events, and was notably uncomfortable being in front of the camera. At times, you could hear someone off camera trying to coach him through it. “What am I doing here?” he asked through pants and sighs. “Can I just say I’m sorry?”
Asked by Matt Lauer if he felt he should be held responsible for the conditions that led to the fire, Almena deflected by talking about the spirit of the place. “I’m only here to say one thing: That I am incredibly sorry. And that everything that I did was to make this a stronger and more beautiful community, and to bring people together. People didn’t walk through those doors because it was a horrible place.”
The one time he did get to the core of Lauer’s line of questioning, Almena trailed off after saying, “I signed a lease and I got a building that was to city standards, supposedly. And I was lured into something that I had to constantly…” He has previously admitted that the art collective made repairs to the building’s electrical system without permits.
Tamron Hall tried to clarify the main point of contention, asking what Almena had done to ensure the safety of those housed in the for-profit commune. (It’s been heavily reported GhostShip lacked proper permits to rent out the space for events or residency.) “I don’t want to talk about profiting. This is profit? The loss of mass life? I’m a father. I laid my children down there every night … This isn’t profit. This is loss. This is a mass grave.”
After that, Almena essentially stopped responding to the questions and seemed to be addressing accusations that weren’t being made. Without prompting, he spoke about the fact that he had checked into a hotel the night of the tragedy. “On the night of the fire, did I know there was gonna be a fire? Did I remove my children from the space and get a hotel because I wanted to avoid this? Because I wanted to cast blame on other people? No, I wanted to get a good night sleep with my children and I wanted to let the young people do what they needed to do.”
Though he skirted around any sense of responsibility, he was clearly devastated by the loss of life and wracked with guilt. “I would rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents,” he said. “I would rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions.”
However, the questions were far from ridiculous. Lauer and Hall were justified in going down a line of inquiry Almena will likely face from investigators in the coming days. The 10,000-square-foot GhostShip was under investigation for its jury-rigged and exposed wiring, a lack of a sprinkler system or working smoke alarms, and its crammed and unsanitary living spaces, as well as illegally operating as a residence. There were also concerns over “unpermitted interior constructions,” such as the makeshift “staircase” that led to many being trapped on the second floor during the fire. Unsurprisingly, some former residents have claimed Almena seemed more concerned with the altruistic and artistic purpose of the commune than the oft-mentioned safety issues.
The search for more victims was called off on Monday due to concerns over the wreckage’s structural integrity. Operations resumed on Tuesday, with 85% of the building having now been searched. The search is expected to finish before rains arrive on Thursday, though Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton doesn’t expect the entire scene will be cleared.
Watch the full interview below: