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Oakland Warehouse Manager Tells 'Today' Show: 'I Am Incredibly Sorry'

On Monday, workers and emergency responders look at a warehouse in which a fire late Friday claimed the lives of at least 36 people on in Oakland, Calif.
Elijah Nouvelage
Getty Images
On Monday, workers and emergency responders look at a warehouse in which a fire late Friday claimed the lives of at least 36 people on in Oakland, Calif.

The manager of the Oakland, Calif., warehouse that burned down, killing at least 36 people, apologized for the devastation while defending his vision for the "Ghost Ship" artists' collective during an agonized, frequently tense interview on the Todayshow.

After Matt Lauer welcomed him with "good morning," Derick Almena shook his head.

"It's not a good morning," he said. "What am I doing here? Can I just say I'm sorry?"

When asked if he should be held accountable for the disaster, Almena — who has been accused of failing to correct unsafe conditions — said, "What am I going to say to that? ... I can barely stand here right now."

Further questions from the hosts about the possibility of criminal charges seemed to agitate Almena, who ultimately said:

"I'm an honorable man. I'm a proud man. I'm not going to answer these questions on this level. I'd rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents — I would rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions.

"I'm so sorry," he repeated. "I'm incredibly sorry."

You can watch the entire interview here.

The fire started late Friday night at a dance party at the Ghost Ship.

"Survivors recounted having to struggle to escape the burning warehouse, where many of the victims were on a makeshift second floor served by a rickety staircase of wooden pallets," The Associated Press reports. "Visitors described the structure as a warren of scrap wood, sofas, old pianos and electrical cables."

Authorities have confirmed 36 fatalities, 17 of whom have been publicly identified. One victim was a 17-year-old, whose name won't be released; the other victims ranged in age from 22 to 35.

For the past three years, Almena said he leased the building in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood and in turn offered smaller leases to residents. He ran an artists' collective out of the structure, which wasn't zoned for residential use. The AP reports that the warehouse had been under investigation by local building inspectors starting last month.

An artist who survived the fire told NPR that Almena and his partner, Micah Allison, were supportive of her work.

"We were family. It wasn't just a place for cheap rent or a place that you could make art. It was a village," she said. "It was a community of people. We looked out for each other."

But Almena has been sharply criticized by others. After the catastrophic fire, he posted a message on Facebook that read in part, "Everything I worked so hard for is gone. Blessed that my children and Micah were at a hotel safe and sound." It didn't mention fatalities or injuries.

And some have accused Almena of having a callous attitude toward the safety of residents of the building. Allison's father, for instance, recalled the couple laughing at a story about a fire-breather accidentally setting himself ablaze during a party at the Ghost Ship, while a former Ghost Ship resident told the AP that Almena and Allison knew the building was dangerous.

"They profited on this," Shelley Mack told the wire service. "And never spent a dime on anything but partying."

"Profit?" Almena asked on Today."This is not profit, this is loss. This is a mass grave.

"I'm only here to say one thing, that I am incredibly sorry and that everything I did was to make this a stronger, more beautiful community and to bring people together."

Almena also defended his creation, and implied he never thought it would be dangerous, noting that he and his children slept there most nights. (They were in a hotel the night of the fire, he says, to get a good night's sleep while "the young people do what they needed to do.")

"I laid my body down there every night," he said, adding:

"We put our children to bed there every night. We made music. We created art. ... It started out as an initial dream and idea that we would have a facility and a venue that would host everything from at-risk youth to the gay community to artists that couldn't perform anywhere to performance art and alternative arts and — and eventually when you can't pay your rent because your dream is bigger than your pocketbook, when the need for housing, when the need for people to be able to sit down and be warm and make food and take a shower and take a bath and go to bed — so we created something together."

The cause of the fire has not yet been identified, and no charges have been filed. As the AP notes, investigators have not commented on whether Almena or the owner of the warehouse should be held responsible for the disaster.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.