A year after the deadly Ghost Ship fire, the wife of master tenant Derick Almena is standing by her husband, raising three children, and trying to make ends meet while he sits in jail.
Micah Allison is also insistent that she and her family are not villains and they, too, were deeply affected by the tragedy that claimed 36 lives. While she did not formally apologize for the deaths, or for the condition of the warehouse, which was filled with musical equipment, art, makeshift plumbing and jerry-rigged electricity and loads of wood, she did say that she “will forever carry a great burden.”
In her first on-camera interview since her husband’s arrest, Allison opened up to 2 Investigates about her family, her fears and the fire.
“To lose someone you love is the worst kind of suffering, I think, that humans can endure,” she said.
Allison has been working as a social worker while her children – ages 14, eight, and six – attend school in Lake County.
“It's just a lot of financial stress on me and I’m bearing all of it right now, as a lot of women and mothers do, whose husbands are inside,” she said. Her oldest daughter just began high school this fall.
Allison spoke to 2 Investigates’ at a prison art show held at the law offices of Tony Serra in San Francisco in late October. Almena’s artwork was among the inmates’ art on display, and Serra is defending Almena in his involuntary manslaughter case stemming from the Ghost Ship fire. Almena has been creating pencil sketches from his cell in Santa Rita Jail that depict surreal scenes, staring eyes, and even a sketch that shows the words “Blame God” above images of flames.
Derick Almena, master tenant of the Ghost Ship in Oakland, said in a jailhouse that he believes he bears some of the responsibility for the fire, but not all. He listed off several people who he feels should share in the blame, and then he added: “I blame God. Fire is God. Fire is life." He drew artwork in prison to depict what he means: The word BLAME is in all capital letters hovering over the eye of God. Almena then paused. "But blaming God is ridiculous," he conceded. "It's a joke.” Watch the full interview tonight at 10 p.m. #DerickAlmena #GhostShipAnniversary null
The art connects Allison to Almena, who is segregated from the rest of the inmates as he awaits the trial for the deaths of the 36 people who couldn’t escape the warehouse the night of the fire. Almena mails his pieces to her and to Serra’s office directly.
“It's a great honor for me to be able to show this work on behalf of my husband and I do it with complete and total humility,” she said. “I don't want anything from any of this except for people to be able to feel and experience art through my husband's hands and through his viewpoint, and that maybe they would be open to seeing it and maybe to have some compassion for what he's going through and what we're going through.”
Allison said that receiving her husband’s artwork from behind bars has been “intense” for her and her children. She explained that she is getting to see the visual representation of Almena’s emotions in a much more intimate way.
“The thing about art is that you don't have to use words, like I’ve been doing this whole time, it's really hard to convey. I’m doing my best to get you and everyone else who would watch this to understand what I’m saying and to feel me, and feel my honesty, my heartfelt emotion, my uh, my genuine nature,” she said. “But the thing about art is you don't have to really say anything; you can just be what you want to be. And if you feel really terribly ugly, and you feel really terribly misunderstood, you can express that.”
Allison said that her family has been misunderstood from the beginning. She defended a Facebook post that her husband made just hours after the fire, in which he said “everything I worked so hard for is gone.” The post garnered thousands of comments and criticism from people who found it insensitive.
“We didn't know that there had been any loss of life when he posted that on Facebook,” Allison said. “So it was really misrepresented. It sounded like he was only talking about his things and actually all he was trying to say was that we were safe.”
Almena, Allison and their three children were staying at a nearby hotel the night of the deadly fire. The family lived at the warehouse, and the children attended a charter school nearby.
Allison explained that she and her husband truly believed that they were building a special space at the Ghost Ship that could provide a refuge and an outlet for artists in the Bay Area. She lamented the lack of support from the City of Oakland in addressing the housing crisis and the burden that working artists bear in trying to make a living.
“I can't tell you how brokenhearted to see so many of those spaces shut down over this,” she said. Allison said that the Ghost Ship – also called the Satya Yuga artists’ collective – was not the “terrible, horrible” place described in some reports.
“I know that everybody that was there that night were all amazing artists, and they were all there as contemporaries of each other to share with each other. They were attracted to the space because of its sense of adventure, it's sense of beauty,” she said. “Actually it was a sanctuary and a safe haven for many people.”
Allison would not answer any questions about the warehouse owner, Chor Ng, saying she didn’t want to comment on anything related to her husband’s criminal case.
When asked if she or her husband feel responsible for the tragedy, Allison sighed deeply and said, “It's really difficult for me to answer that with my husband's freedom being on the line.”
But then she added: “I will carry this for the rest of my life. There is no separation between myself and the people that died. I don't believe that there's a separation. I believe they're always with us and I believe that there has to be a great purpose and a greater reason. We have to make it that way if there isn't.”