Attorneys representing the master leaseholder of the illegal artists’ live/work space in southwest Oakland said the fire that destroyed the building and killed 36 occupants in December started out elsewhere. The unexpected contention, raised on Jan. 23 by Lawyers for Derick Ion Almena and his longtime partner, Micah Allison, suggests that responsibility for the tragic blaze may be difficult and complicated to assess. No criminal charges have been filed.

Hard to get out

The victims perished when they unable to escape a concert stage on the second floor of the warehouse, where dozens of artists lived even though the building was not permitted as a residence, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.

The warehouse, which residents had dubbed "The Ghost Ship," had only two exits and no lighted emergency exit signs. The second-floor concert venue was reachable only via a makeshift stairway, and most victims were apparently overcome by smoke before they could get to safety.

Well-known San Francisco defense attorney Tony Serra, who represents Derick Almena, said his investigators have found evidence that the fire did not start in the artists' residence but spread from a nearby building in Oakland's gritty Fruitvale district.. The defense team released a report last month suggesting that power connections to the Ghost Ship building were inadequate and that electricity came from outside.

“The reasonable doubt here is overwhelming,” the report said.

Fire cause still unknown

Investigations into the cause of the fire are continuing, but the oakland fire Dept. and the Alameda County District Attorney's Office have not released any findings publicly. Agents from the U.S. Dept. of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were called immediately after the fire and turned over evidence to Oakland firefighters but have refused to disclose what, if anything, they found.

Teresa Drenick, a spokeswoman for the Alameda district attorney, told the newspaper that her office would not comment until its investigation was completed. An ATF spokeswoman told the newspaper that the Oakland Fire Department would release its determination when its investigation was completed. Almena’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment, the newspaper said.

The magnitude of the disaster prompted calls for closer inspections of commercial buildings in the high-priced San Francisco Bay Area but prompted fears of a crackdown on places favored by artists looking for cheaper rent. Some accounts reported that the Ghost Ship building at 31st Avenue and International Boulevard had not been inspected by the city in decades.