SAN FRANCISCO — The deadliest U.S. building fire in more than a decade has left David Gregory with a recurring nightmare that still wakes him up in tears.
Gregory’s 20-year-old daughter, Michela, was among 36 people who died in the Dec. 2, 2016, blaze at an Oakland warehouse, and in the dream Gregory can hear her calling his name and screaming for help.
“And there’s nothing I can do,” he said during a recent telephone interview, his voice quivering with emotion. “I always wake up crying, and it happens a lot.”
The one-year anniversary of the fire at the building known as the Ghost Ship is bringing back painful memories for Gregory and other victims’ families.
“You never recover from it,” said Mary Alexander, an attorney who is representing Gregory and other victims’ families in a lawsuit that names the city, the warehouse’s owner and its operator. “All of them are anxious about the one-year. It’s creating a lot of emotions.”
The anniversary is also refocusing attention on Oakland, a beleaguered San Francisco Bay Area city that was excoriated following the blaze for a series of failures that allowed the warehouse to function illegally as a cluttered living space for artists with no fire alarms or sprinklers. The fire occurred during an unpermitted electronic music concert.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in January vowed never to forget the victims.
“We will learn all we can from this horrific tragedy to make Oakland a safer and more resilient community,” she said in an executive order directing city officials to prioritize building inspections, audit the fire department’s inspection bureau and create a database to share information about problem buildings across city departments.
A city report in November touted Oakland as safer since the blaze, but some officials have a more mixed assessment of the city’s efforts, criticizing them as slow and incomplete.
Just months after the Ghost Ship blaze, a fire at a dilapidated building killed four people, reinforcing criticism that Oakland was inept after emails showed a fire captain recommended shutting the place down weeks earlier and another fire official warned it was dangerous.
The city is more than doubling its number of fire code inspectors, but the full contingent of 20 inspectors won’t be in place until the end of 2018. The database to share information about problem buildings also won’t be up and running until next year.
The system is considered vital after the Ghost Ship fire exposed communications breakdowns between officials. Records show in the months before the blaze, city officials received numerous complaints about the warehouse and police repeatedly visited the site. Inspectors had knocked on the Ghost Ship’s doors a few times, but none had stepped inside the warehouse for at least 30 years.
Dan Robertson, head of the union that represents city firefighters, said the city is moving in the right direction.
“But we’d like to see change come a little bit faster and perhaps with more dedication of resources coming directly to the fire department, he said.
Rebecca Kaplan, an Oakland councilwoman, said she was “very concerned about the number of things that haven’t been done yet.”
City spokeswoman Karen Boyd did not comply with a request for interviews with city officials.