The city of Oakland, Calif., has agreed to pay nearly $33 million to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims of a fire that killed 36 people in a two-story converted warehouse in 2016.
The families of 32 of the victims who died when flames consumed the structure, which housed an artist collective known as the Ghost Ship, will receive $23.5 million, the city said in a statement. A survivor, Sam Maxwell, who the city said lives “with severe, lifelong injuries and major medical expenses,” will receive $9.2 million.
The blaze, on Dec. 2, 2016, was one of the worst structure fires in recent U.S. history.
People had gathered on the second floor of the warehouse for an electronic music dance party when the fire started. The building did not have a permit to host parties or operate as a residence, and most of the people who were living there were doing so in violation of zoning laws. Attendees and residents struggled to evacuate the building as they navigated a haphazard maze of broken pianos, shoddy electrical equipment and a makeshift staircase made of wooden pallets.
The East Bay Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the fire and its aftermath, found that the city had missed opportunities to flag hazards at the warehouse that could have contributed to the inferno.
“One spark and it will be all bad,” an Oakland police officer said in 2015, according to body camera footage obtained by the paper.
Mary Alexander, a lawyer representing the families of 13 of the victims, said in an interview on Saturday that the police had been to the Ghost Ship to investigate noise complaints, and that there was a fire station nearby.
“They did nothing,” she said. “If they’d done the right thing, this tragedy never would have happened.”
In announcing the settlement, the city maintained that it was “not liable for these tragic losses,” and said it had settled the civil lawsuits “because of the cost-benefit analysis.”
Ms. Alexander said that although the families would like the city to admit fault, the settlement gave them a “sense of justice and accountability on the part of the city.”
Paul Matiasic, a lawyer representing the families of four of the victims, said that while “the magnitude of the loss for each of these families is immeasurable,” the amount of money to be paid by the city “speaks to the fact that they were responsible at least in part for what happened.”
Derick Almena, the primary leaseholder of the warehouse, and Max Harris, who had assisted in operating it, were each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. A jury acquitted Mr. Harris last year but was not able to reach a verdict on Mr. Almena’s role. He is set to be retried in October.
There were no smoke alarms or sprinklers in the building, witnesses said during the trial. Lawyers for Mr. Harris and Mr. Almena had argued that the landlord and the city were at fault. A spokeswoman for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case, said in 2017 that a cause most likely would never be found “because of the nature of the fire and its consumption of nearly all of the evidence.”
The Ghost Ship had served as a community for artists, a refuge from the Bay Area’s punishing cost of living, and a space for performances, such as the one that was happening when the fire started.
The members of the community that coalesced around the Ghost Ship “were square pegs trying to fit into round holes,” said Sue Slocum, whose daughter Donna Kellogg died in the fire and would have turned 36 on Saturday.
Ms. Slocum said that while she and others who lost relatives in the fire were relieved to avoid a trial, the settlement “cannot be closure.”
“There’s no such thing as closure and nothing’s going to bring her back,” she said. “No money can bring my Donna back.”
Ms. Kellogg was deeply involved in the arts community in Oakland, Ms. Slocum said. She rode her bike “everywhere,” played drums in a band and aspired to teach others about healthy eating, her mother said.
Jack Bohlka, the father of Em Bohlka, a transgender woman who died in the fire, told The New York Times in a telephone interview after the fire that “there are far too few spaces for trans people to feel safe and free to express themselves.” The Ghost Ship was one of those spaces, he said.
“Although the building itself was not physically safe,” he said, “the community of beautiful people felt safe with each other.”