Painful Lessons

The tragic Oakland warehouse fire is still fresh in our minds and heavy in our hearts. On December 2nd, a fire broke out in an Oakland warehouse called “Ghost Ship” during an unpermitted concert. The building contained unpermitted dwelling units and did not have functioning fire and life safety systems, allowing the fire to claim the lives of 36 people – the deadliest fire in Oakland history.

It would just so happen that the Oakland fire occurred close to the 70th anniversary of the Atlanta Winecoff Hotel fire, which occurred on December 7th, 1946. The circumstances of the Winecoff fire, which claimed the lives of 119 people, bear unfortunate similarities to the “Ghost Ship” fire: the fire alarm system in the hotel did not sound and obstructions in the egress pathway prevented some hotel guests from escaping.

After the Winecoff fire, fire and life safety professionals around the nation, including the National Fire Protection Association, met at the direction of President Truman to develop solutions to ensure safety in places of public assembly. The resulting revisions to fire codes around the United States impacted building material use, architecture and building design, and legislation regarding ex-post facto enforcement of new fire code requirements. Since then, thankfully, fire loss in the United States has seen a steady decline.

The revolutionary changes made in the wake of the Winecoff Hotel fire were only possible because of a deliberate decision to stop and ask, “Why?” As a nation, we took our collective grief and turned it into action, and that action has saved countless lives.

In the case of the Oakland fire, it remains unclear why action was not taken to prevent the “Ghost Ship” warehouse from operating as a concert venue and artist commune while it did not meet fire codes. The Vice President of the Oakland firefighter’s union has said that he complained regularly to city officials that Oakland does not have enough fire inspectors and that its Fire Department lacks proper resources. Whatever the reason, we must obtain answers and those answers must lead to timely and actionable solutions.

While these sorts of heartbreaking events can tempt us to stay paralyzed by the pain of loss, we owe it to the loved ones left behind to take action to help ensure future tragedies, like the Winecoff and Oakland fires, are averted. It is our duty to learn the lessons of history – especially the painful ones – to create a brighter, safer future.